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Chicago Board of Education extends the district’s authority to spend on COVID-related expenses

A man uses a nasal swab COVID test in a high school gymnasium, as two people in yellow protective suits and masks stand before him on the hardwood floor.

Chicago’s Board of Education on Wednesday extended the district’s authority to spend funds on COVID-19 safety mitigations for the upcoming school year.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Chicago’s Board of Education has extended the district’s authority to spend funds on COVID-19 safety mitigations for the upcoming school year — a sign the district will continue to take precautions amid new waves of variants that could disrupt classes.

Under a resolution passed at its Wednesday board meeting, Chicago Public Schools will have the authority to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic for the upcoming school year without getting board approval for each expense. The district will provide testing, vaccinations, masks, as well cleaning supplies to respond to COVID-19 health emergencies. The resolution will take effect from July 1 and last until June 30, 2023.

During the meeting, member Sendhil Revuluri, who voted against the extension, acknowledged the need for the district’s agility to respond to health and safety needs of students, but said the district needed to be more strategic on COVID-19 expenditures. 

CPS officials said the authorization will allow the district to be nimble and act quickly when unexpected purchases are needed. 

CEO Pedro Martinez said he was committed to making sure board members had access to timely reports.

The district is negotiating its contract with its testing vendor for the upcoming 2022-23 school year, and could not provide a figure on spending for the upcoming year. Thermo Fisher received a $60 million contract with CPS, but it’s unclear how much the district ultimately paid for school-based COVID testing throughout the academic year. 

Last week, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced it would offer every public school outside of Chicago the opportunity to use saliva-based COVID-19 testing through Shield Illinois at no cost for the upcoming school year.

When CPS fully reopened in the fall after 18 months of mostly remote instruction, the district struggled to establish an effective school-based COVID testing program.  

Chicago Public Schools completed 127 tests at schools during the first week of classes between Aug. 29 and Sept. 4. At the start of the school year, the district also failed to meet its deadline to implement a testing program at every school, citing staffing shortages with Thermo Fisher.

By January, amid another surge in cases, a majority of Chicago Teachers Union members voted to teach remotely because of concerns about the district’s COVID safety measures. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the district canceled classes for five days amid the dispute with its union.  

After a weeklong stalemate, district leaders and the union came to an agreement on a safety plan. The agreement included masks for teachers and students, more testing, and details for when a school or class would flip back to remote. The union’s original demands for a districtwide threshold to shut down in-person teaching and an opt-out testing program were not met.

After the mid-year disruption, the district increased testing capacity, hitting a peak of 66,134 COVID tests between March 27 and April 2, data shows.

The district moved to a mask-optional policy in mid-March, prompting frustration from some parents. In May, one school and 21 other classrooms temporarily reinstated mask mandates after recording several COVID-19 cases. 

From Aug. 29 to June 16, Chicago Public Schools recorded 22,568 COVID-19 cases among students and 9,477 cases among staff, according to district records. 

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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