Chicago school employees will begin receiving coronavirus vaccines in mid-February, in a process that could stretch out over months unless the state’s federal vaccine shipments increase, officials said Friday.
Chicago Public Schools said it will set up vaccination sites in four of its buildings across the city and train its school nurses to administer the shots to its almost 40,000 employees. Frontline employees who have been reporting to campuses since last year and older workers will get priority, officials said. But district CEO Janice Jackson stressed again that the district has no intention of pausing its reopening push until all teachers and other employees are vaccinated, as the district’s teachers union has demanded.
“There’s nothing we want more than to get the shots in the arms of our dedicated staff,” she said.
The announcement came at the end of a tense week with its teachers union, which has pointed to coronavirus cases in reopened buildings and argued that the district should put its reopening on hold until employees can get vaccinated.
As of early this week, the district had formally reported 34 employee and four student COVID-19 cases in its buildings.
The inoculation process will take time. The district will begin vaccinating its 1,500 school nurses and other frontline healthcare staff next week through a partnership with healthcare organizations, district leaders said. They rejected charges that they could have notified and begun the process of vaccinating those employees sooner.
Teachers union members are voting this week on whether to collectively stop reporting to school buildings on Monday, when educators and support staff in kindergarten through 8th grade are expected to return to campus to prepare to bring back students in those grades Feb. 1. Jackson said she is“optimistic” the district will reach an agreement with the union before Monday, saying the district has beefed up its negotiations team.
She would not say what steps the district will take if the union boycotts in-person teaching, but she stressed again the district would consider such a move an unlawful strike. She vowed to keep families of students in pre-kindergarten and special education, some of whom returned to classrooms Feb. 11, updated over the weekend.
“We also continue to call for a phased-in reopening that supports the educational needs of the vast majority of our students who continue to learn remotely, rather than in unsafe buildings,” the Chicago Teachers Union said in a statement, using the city to speed up vaccinations for teachers and district families.
Multiple campuses have reported that fewer students than expected showed up for in-person learning so far. Jackson called reopening a “successful launch” and said the number of students who participated in in-person learning will be shared later Friday.
School districts across Illinois are trying to figure out the vaccine puzzle. At a meeting Wednesday of the state school board, Donna Leak, the vice chair of the state school board and the superintendent of Community Consolidated Schools District 168, described the scramble among superintendents to meet with health officials and determine supply and access. “We’re now turning into public health personnel, too,” she said.
Still, public health officials continue to raise concerns about supply allocations as the state moves into the next phase of vaccinations, which includes teachers, on Monday. The state is opening up more distribution sites, including retail pharmacies, in an effort to alleviate the appointment crunch — but vaccine allocations are limited.
“We are working to increase the number of providers and vaccination sites across the state,” said Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the state health department.
Chicago health commissioner Allison Arwady said she is reassured to see coronavirus positivity rates and other metrics come down from an October peak of a second COVID-19 surge the city experienced. Those rates remain significantly lower among students and school employees who have attended in-person instruction than they are in the general public, she said.
She noted again that vaccinations for students likely will not take place until this summer, after clinical trials to ensure vaccines are safe for children conclude.
“I make a lot of hard decisions,” she said. “This decision (to reopen schools) has been one that has the most science behind it.”
Samantha Smylie contributed reporting.