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Chicago schools see COVID vaccination rates backslide with a wave of new students

A girl sits waiting in an auditorium alongside a health worker for her first COVID-19 vaccine.

After hovering around 45% last spring, the district’s overall COVID vaccination rates slid to 39.6% at the start of the new school year.

Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat

Chicago Public Schools continues to struggle with COVID vaccine uptake as younger, unvaccinated students replace vaccinated graduates, but the district exceeds national averages in most children’s age groups.

Across all district-run schools, the average school vaccination rate is 39.6%, a drop from May when the average school rate was 44.7%. The pattern is mirrored at individual schools across the city, which are experiencing dips in the number of students who have completed the COVID-19 vaccine series, data shows. Rates remain the lowest at predominantly Black schools on the South and West Sides, according to a data analysis by Chalkbeat.

Even though city agencies spent the summer promoting vaccines, the updated numbers  reveal the ongoing difficulty Chicago Public Schools faces in getting students vaccinated, even as COVID cases increased during the first weeks back to class.  

This year marks the first school year since the start of the pandemic that all school-age students are eligible for the vaccine. 

Here are some takeaways from Chalkbeat’s analysis of Chicago’s school-based vaccination data:

  • Majority Black elementary and high schools had an average vaccination rate of 23%, compared to majority Latino elementary and high schools, which averaged about 48.5%.
  • Majority Latino schools have lower vaccination rates, with a drop in uptake by about 5.6 percentage points from May to September; majority Black schools saw rates fall by about 3 percentage points over the same time period.
  • At 70% of schools across the district, less than half of the student population is vaccinated against the virus. At about 30% of schools across the district, less than a quarter of students are vaccinated.
  • District-run schools had a slightly overall higher vaccination rate than charters at both the elementary and high school level, but uptake among overall majority Black and Latino schools were slightly higher at charter schools.

As of Wednesday, 62.69% of 12- to 17-year-olds, 40.13% of 5- to 11-year-olds, and 1.41% of infants and children 6 months to 4 years old within CPS have completed a COVID vaccine series, according to district data.

Across the city, 73% of 12- to 17-year-olds, 49.1% of 5- to 11-year-olds, and 4.4% of infants and children 6 months to 4 years old have completed the vaccine series as of Sept. 12, city data shows.

Nationally, 60% of 12- to 17-year-olds, 31% of 5- to 11-year-olds, and 7 % of the youngest age group have received one dose as of Sept. 7, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Since July 2021, CPS has partnered with the city’s Department of Public Health, Illinois Department of Public Health, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote vaccines. The district has opened four regional vaccine hubs, over 20 school-based health centers, and hosted more than 1,000 mobile vaccination clinics.

In a statement, Chicago Public Schools said the safety of staff and students was a priority since the onset of the pandemic, noting that promoting vaccination was “a central part” of its strategy.

“The vaccination rate in our District-run schools is ahead of the national average because we have invested resources in promoting vaccines and providing access,” the district said.

The district acknowledged “areas with low vaccination rates” and said it is continuously promoting vaccine efficacy and importance of getting vaccinated.

CPS plans to “double down on our efforts and try to assuage concerns and fears of families in communities who are historically suspicious of perceived government-administered vaccinations,” the statement said.

The district has an ongoing paid advertising campaign that targets zip codes in the city with low vaccination rates.

Ahead of the new school year, district officials also held back-to-school bashes that included vaccination clinics. Despite such efforts, uptake lags, especially at schools on the South and West Side, data shows. 

North Side schools in Lake View, North Center, and North Park continue to have the highest uptake with over 70% of students fully vaccinated as of Sept. 6, data shows.

By contrast, schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods including Greater Grand Crossing,  Englewood, Oakland, and Burnside had the lowest uptake with less than 20% of students fully vaccinated as of Sept. 6, data shows. 

Since students returned to school on Aug. 22, Chicago Public Schools has reported 2,721 student and 1,354 staff COVID  cases across district-run schools as of Sept. 13. 

Last week, about 736 students and 353 staff tested positive for COVID-19 between Sept. 4 and Sept. 10, down from the previous week when 1,250 students and 465 staff members tested positive for the virus, according to school district data.

The fluctuation in cases comes as students returned to the classroom last month with fewer district-mandated COVID-19 restrictions and a highly contagious BA.4 and BA.5 variant circulating across Chicago. 

Currently, only 8.74%, or about 23,220 students, at district-run schools, are signed up  for COVID-19 testing. The district has also made rapid home- COVID tests available to students.

Ahead of the new school year, Chicago Public Schools relaxed coronavirus mitigation, 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. 

Students and staff identified as close contacts are also required to wear masks for 10 days. This new measure implemented ahead of the school year aims to keep students in class, while also curbing the spread of the virus. It’s unclear how many students have been required to mask following an uptick in cases during the first few weeks.

The changes follow recently updated COVID-19 guidance from the CDC, which nixed test-to-stay protocols and eased quarantine policies for unvaccinated students.

The district is not requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Instead, officials continue to encourage 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.

Earlier this month, Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner, said she wasn’t alarmed by the uptick and anticipated more cases with school underway. She noted the availability of vaccines has ushered in a new phase of the pandemic with fewer people dying from the virus. She has urged families, especially those with children from 6 months to 4 years old to get their children vaccinated.

The Chicago’s Department of Public Health has also urged families to get vaccinated against the flu.

City officials last week announced the rollout of 150,000 newly updated COVID-19 booster shots that offer greater protection against omicron variants. The boosters are free and available to anyone 12 and older who has already completed the initial vaccine series. 

By getting more people protected against the circulating variant, the city would see fewer transmissions, Arwady said during a press conference last week.

“This is a big deal,” Arwady said. “This gives us a chance to get ahead of the virus.”

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

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