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COVID cases at Chicago schools jump in first week back

COVID-19 safety guidelines are seen in a classroom at Senn High School on April 23, 2021.

COVID-19 cases among Chicago students and staff jumped during the first week back amid a highly contagious variant and looser COVID-19 restrictions.

Max Herman for Chalkbeat

Chicago Public Schools reported more than 400 new COVID-19 cases among students and hundreds more among staff during its first week of the school year, three times the number recorded during the same period last year, data shows. 

The first-week numbers come as students returned to the classroom with looser COVID-19 restrictions and a highly contagious BA.5 variant — a sign that the coronavirus will continue to present challenges for yet another school year.

Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner who recently recovered from COVID-19, said she anticipated an increase in cases when students returned to schools.

“There is nothing about those case numbers that are at all surprising to me,” Arwady said during an online segment Tuesday afternoon. The numbers will likely go up, she added.

In the first week, 451 students and 315 staff self-reported positive tests. One staff member tested positive as part of school-based testing last week, according to city data.

Last year, 139 students and 65 CPS staffers reported testing positive for COVID-19 during the first week of school between Aug. 29 and Sept. 4, data shows.

The first-week numbers for this year rely primarily on self-reporting because the district’s school-based testing wasn’t widely available until Monday. Currently, only 4% or about 10,408 students at district-run schools have opted in for COVID-19 testing. 

The city’s risk of COVID-19 transmission is currently medium, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention transmission rating system.

Ahead of the new school year, Chicago Public Schools revised its coronavirus mitigations, continuing its mask-optional policy and school-based COVID-19 testing, but eliminating the quarantine requirement for students exposed to the coronavirus. Quarantines are now only required for those who test positive.

Under the current protocols, students and staff identified as close contacts are required to mask for 10 days.

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. 

During a press conference on the first day of school last week at Excel Academy of South Shore, CEO Pedro Martinez said keeping classrooms open is a top priority. 

“The vast majority of our students will be able to stay in their classrooms learning in person,” Martinez said. 

The unpredictability of variants has made it challenging to be fully prepared, but Martinez noted that the district was in “such a different place than we were last year, both in our safety protocols and what we know about the pandemic.”

Chicago Public Schools is not requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Last year, before quarantine requirements were lifted, vaccinated students were allowed to continue attending school in-person, while unvaccinated students considered close contacts had to quarantine. 

The district is encouraging families to get inoculated in order to protect against severe illness and will be offering vaccination events for students, staff, and families. Information for vaccination events can be found here.

As of Monday, 63.22% of 12- to 17-year-olds, 44.6% of 5- to 11-year-olds, and 14.26% of infants and children 6 months to 4 years old within CPS have completed a COVID vaccine series, according to district data.

About 68.18% of 12- to 17-year-olds, 52.19% of 5- to 11-year-olds, and 17.65% of the youngest age group have received one dose, data shows.

Vaccination uptake varies widely across demographics and geography. Black students are far less likely to be vaccinated than their Latino counterparts, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

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

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