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Chicago Public Schools students return to class next week with looser COVID-19 rules

Two students wearing masks walk in a highway at a high school in Chicago.

Families can expect a continuation of the mask optional policy and school-based COVID-19 testing, but no quarantine requirement for students exposed to the coronavirus, unless they test positive.

Youngrae Kim for Chalkbeat

Chicago Public Schools’ students returning to class Monday will find more relaxed COVID-19 protocols, as the nation’s third largest school district adapts to the changing pandemic and recently updated federal recommendations.

In an email to parents, CEO Pedro Martinez outlined the district’s coronavirus mitigation measures for the upcoming school year, which include a continuation of its mask-optional policy and school-based COVID-19 testing, but no quarantine requirement for students exposed to the coronavirus, unless they test positive.

The changes follow recently updated COVID-19 guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which nixed recommendations for test-to-stay protocols and eased quarantine policies for unvaccinated students. 

In announcing the changes, Martinez wrote that the district wants students to be able to learn in person throughout the year. 

“CPS strives to keep school communities safe while maximizing in-person learning, which we know is critical to our students’ learning and development,” he wrote. 

Districts across the country have already lifted a number of restrictions as the new academic year begins — a sign that schools are trying to return to pre-pandemic norms after two tumultuous years. 

In Chicago, the school district negotiated with the Chicago Teachers Union to modify their existing safety agreement. The current agreement expires on Aug. 26. Union members are expected to vote on the agreement next week, according to the union. 

In his email to parents, Martinez said the district would update parents on any changes to COVID-19 protocols throughout the year. In the meantime, here is what students and families can expect when school restarts next week: 

No more quarantines for close contacts, but masks on for 10 days

The district will not require unvaccinated students and staff to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19. Instead, students and staff who are exposed will be required to wear masks in school for 10 days after exposure, regardless of vaccine status. 

The district will also provide take-home rapid COVID tests, which CPS is encouraging students and staff to use on days three and five after exposure to limit the spread of the virus.

The decision to loosen quarantine measures is a significant shift from last year when the district fully reopened for the first time since March 2020. Chicago Public Schools, like schools across the country, grappled with surging variants that drove up cases and led to thousands of students and staff being quarantined because of possible exposure to the virus. Amid the omicron surge in late January, the district quarantined over 22,000 on one day, according to the district data.

But quarantines won’t go away entirely.

Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner, said in an interview with City Cast Chicago that students and staff who test positive will still be required to quarantine for at least five days. Upon returning to schools, they are required to wear a mask from days six through 10, she added.

“That has not changed,” Arwady said.

Chicago Public Schools will also require mask wearing if there is a positive case in an elementary school classroom and if directed by the Chicago Department of Public Health. Otherwise, mask wearing will remain optional but highly encouraged by the district, according to the email sent to parents.

COVID-19 testing

The district will continue to offer optional, weekly COVID-19 testing at schools. Last month, Chicago’s Board of Education approved an $85 million contract with vendor Thermo Fisher to continue optional surveillance testing for the 2022-23 school year. 

Students whose families agree to testing will need to submit a new form for the upcoming school year. Parents can fill out the form here. With the new form, consent will be considered given as long as the student is in CPS.

More than 9,000 students have consented to school-based testing as of Aug. 16, according to the district.

Last year, the district struggled to establish an effective school-based COVID testing program. Months into the school year, just 7% of the district’s student body had signed up for testing. In some schools, fewer than five students consented to the weekly nose swabs. Concerns over testing and other safety concerns resulted in a standoff between the district and the union, whose members voted to switch to remote learning. School was canceled for five days as the district and the union negotiated a settlement. 

Part of that settlement was a district promise to get at least 10% of students at every school to sign up for weekly COVID-19 testing. 

After ramping up testing capacity, CPS was testing more than 64,000 students weekly throughout the district. 

Vaccination

Chicago Public Schools is not requiring vaccines, but is encouraging families to get inoculated against the virus to protect against severe illness. The district will continue to offer vaccination events for students, staff and families. Information for vaccination events can be found here.

In June, children 6 months to 4 years old became the last age group approved for the vaccine. Vaccines for 12- to 17-year-olds were approved in May 2021, followed by children ages 5 to 11 approved last fall.

Across the country, the vaccination numbers for children have stagnated, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ analysis of CDC data

In Chicago, 72.8% of 12- to 17-year-olds, 48.6% of 5- to 11-year-olds, and 2.7% of infants and children 6 months to 4 years have completed a COVID vaccine series. About 24.3% of 12- to-17-year-olds and 7.9% of 5- to 11-year-olds have also received boosters, according to city data.

About 81.6% of 12- to 17-year-olds, 55.9% of 5- to 11-year-olds, and 10.3% of the youngest age group have received one dose, data shows.

But vaccination uptake among Chicago Public Schools students lags behind the city average and varies widely. Black students are far less likely to be vaccinated than their Latino counterparts, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

Health and school officials have stressed the importance of being up to date with the vaccine to prevent severe illness from the coronavirus. 

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

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