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COVID protocols: What you need to know about changing guidance in Chicago schools

High school students wearing masks sit several feet apart at desks in a classroom,

Chicago will shorten its quarantine period for public school students and staff to five days starting Feb. 1.

Rich Legg / Getty Images

Shorter quarantine, a push for testing, school-level closures when cases rise: January has brought a round of changes to Chicago’s COVID-19 school safety protocols, including a new safety agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union that impacts decision making in schools. 

How will these changes affect families and students? What do parents and guardians need to know? We tracked the latest changes, and what they mean, with the Q and A below. 

Have a question you don’t see answered? Send it to us at chicago.tips@chalkbeat.org and we’ll try to help. 

  1. Why did CPS change its quarantine policy, and what does it mean for families? 

On Feb. 1, the district will start directing unvaccinated students and staff exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine for five days, down from the current 10 days. That quarantine period will also apply to students and employees who test positive — and whose symptoms are gone or improving. The district opted to follow the state school board’s new quarantine guidance, which in turn reflects updated guidelines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued in late December. 

The CDC said that people who were sick or exposed to the virus can stop isolating after five days, but it recommended that they wear masks indoors for another five days after that. For some families and educators, that has raised questions about whether school meals will be safe. Masks are required to be worn at Chicago Public Schools; district CEO Pedro Martinez told the school board Wednesday that the district gave itself extra time to roll out the new guidance so it could explore ways to ensure additional social distancing during school breakfasts and lunches.

2. I just received notice of a positive case in my child’s classroom. Should I keep my child home? 

Depends on whether your child is vaccinated. If your child has completed a full vaccination regimen more than two weeks prior, you may send your child back to school as long as they don’t have any symptoms. Unvaccinated children must stay home for the duration of the quarantine period. 

School principals have some leeway about when classrooms are flipped to remote learning. While many schools have flipped classrooms immediately after a positive case is confirmed, some have temporarily paused classroom instruction a day to allow those teachers to prepare for moving instruction online.

3. What happens if my child tests positive? 

Chicago Public Schools is directing families whose child tests positive outside of school-based testing to complete an online self-reporting form, which initiates a contact tracing process to determine if other children were in close contact with the student during an exposure window. 

The district has struggled at times during the school year to keep up with contact tracing, and parents and educators have reported lags. The district’s reopening agreement with the union aims to bolster the ranks of contact tracing by spelling out that school-level staff who volunteer to help trace cases can receive extra pay. But union leaders in late January said that program has been slow to get off the ground.

4. I just received a notice that there was a case in my child’s classroom. My child is vaccinated and can return, but I feel safer staying home. Should my child have access to remote learning? 

The district expects students who are fully vaccinated to stick with in-person learning after a peer or teacher in their classroom tests positive. But some schools have offered more leeway on this issue than others and allowed students access to remote learning while the classroom is flipped.

District officials have argued that students need consistent in-person instruction to bounce back from the pandemic’s fallout, and vaccination allows the district to ward off disruption to their learning.

5. Could an entire school be closed again? Under what conditions? 

Yes — and they have. As of Wednesday, six Chicago Public Schools had fully shifted to remote learning — a decision that impacts vaccinated and unvaccinated students alike — after school-level safety committees voted to do so. 

The district’s agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union sets a relatively high bar for flipping a school building to remote learning for five days: A campus becomes eligible after at least 40% of its student body lands in quarantine during periods of high community virus transmission or 30% of educators are absent for two or more days for documented COVID-related reasons. 

According to the district’s new policy, a district-level tactical team is supposed to review data daily and advise a school about what to do should case counts near the staff or student thresholds set forth in the CPS-CTU agreement. Once the review is complete, the tactical team alerts a principal that it is time for them to hold a meeting of a campus-level safety committee — a group made up of educators and administrators at the school.  

A safety committee can decide that, despite hitting the threshold, a campus can choose to stick with in-person learning. 

Another five campuses have met the criteria since the agreement was approved — but opted not to transition to remote learning.

6. There has been a lot of flux this year, and schools were closed five days in January due to the standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union and the district. Does CPS plan to make up those days? 

District leaders have not yet said for sure. Pressed by parents on social media after the district signed an agreement with teachers, Martinez, the CEO, said in a mid-January e-mail to families that his office would conduct an assessment — “with relevant stakeholders” — and make a recommendation back to the school board about adding back days. Options could include shortening spring break, converting school improvement days (when students typically don’t attend classes) to instructional days, or extending the school year.

Chicago’s teachers did not win back pay for four days missed in the standoff in the safety agreement, but one way of bridging that gap would be scheduling additional instructional time and paying teachers for it. At the January board meeting, CTU President Jesse Sharkey told the board he supported working with the district to make up days.  

7. My child tested positive for COVID within the past three months. Will he or she continue to participate in weekly COVID testing at school? 

The district’s voluntary surveillance testing program administers PCR tests, which can turn up a false positive result in the weeks after somebody contracts the virus. The district places students who have opted into the program and have a documented COVID case on a do-not-test list for 90 days after their positive test result. Schools resume testing these students weekly after that period runs out.

8. Is Chicago weighing a student vaccination mandate like L.A.?

Chicago Public Schools has not yet made a decision, but individual school board members have pushed for a conversation on a mandate for the upcoming school year. During a presentation on COVID safety at a January board meeting, member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said she didn’t foresee beginning the next school year without a vaccine mandate on the table. CEO Pedro Martinez responded that he thinks the issue should be handled at the federal level — something he has previously said. At the same time, he acknowledged that some hesitancy, and low vaccine rates among students, could be attributed to a lack of full federal approval from the Food and Drug Administration.  

Supporters of school-level vaccination mandates have pointed out that districts across the country, including Chicago, require students to show proof of vaccination for diseases like polio and the measles, with some limited exemptions. Others have urged caution when it comes to mandates, arguing that districts should work to eliminate any obstacles to students and families when it comes to in-person instruction. 

9. Is CPS offering COVID tests to students? How often — and how do I sign up?

All Chicago Public School students are eligible for free, weekly school-based COVID testing that is provided on campuses by an external vendor. Parents must provide verbal, or written consent to school officials or sign up using the district’s online form in order to opt in for testing. Parents and guardians can sign up their child here. The test is a simple nasal swab that most students self-administer, and parents are supposed to get the results within 24-72 hours by text message and email.

Chicago Public Schools’ has said it will randomly test 10% of students opted in for testing at each school every week. Because of low sign-up rates at some schools, the district has had to lower the bar for consent. Some teachers are now phone banking to get verbal consent from parents. The goal is 100% participation by February. 

10. Why has testing been such an issue? 

Since the start of the school year, Chicago Public Schools struggled to meet its goal to bring COVID testing to every campus. The district cited staffing shortages with its vendors and low testing capacity. For months, the district also struggled to get students opted in for COVID testing. More than 200 schools, largely on the South and West Sides, had less than 10% of students opted in by mid-December. Language barriers, complicated opt-in forms, and a lack of communication were among the issues with student sign-ups.. 

Under pressure from its teachers’ union, CPS has worked to ramp up testing, reaching a capacity of about 57,000 last week. The number of students who have opted in for testing has increased from 40,000 to about 90,000 districtwide. CPS also acquired an additional 350,000 rapid COVID-tests with the help of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office. Those tests will be administered by nurses and other support staff. 

11. My child has several absences this year. Will it impact admissions to high school? 

No. Several years back, Chicago Public Schools eliminated attendance requirements for admission to its academic centers for seventh and eighth graders and to its ninth grade programs through GoCPS. 

12. Where can I get my child vaccinated? 

There are a number of ways for families to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19, including pediatricians’ offices, children’s hospitals, health care providers, pharmacies, Chicago Public Schools vaccine clinics and events, as well as community events offered through the city’s Department of Public Health.

Chicago Public Schools currently offers vaccines at  four regional sites, mobile clinics,  and school-based health centers. A list of schools, details on the ages served, and how to sign up can be found here.

13.) Does CPS plan to expand its test-to-stay program?

Yes. Chicago Public Schools in December launched a test-to-stay pilot program in one elementary school class. Under the state guidance, unvaccinated students who are exposed to COVID may stay in school if  they are tested on days one, three, five, and seven following exposure and don’t have symptoms. The district described the pilot program as successful but did not continue the program because of the teacher walkouts.

CPS plans to restart the pilot program after Feb. 1 when the district shifts to a five-day quarantine period. Alongside the new quarantine guidance, the district plans to identify “the optimal settings to re-launch, how to best administer it, and how to effectively communicate testing protocols and testing with families.”

During the January Board of Education meeting, Dr. Kenneth Fox, the district’s retiring chief medical officer, called the test-to-stay program a proven concept. He said the program could be scaled up but it would take a “significant investment” and be more costly to carry out a test-to-stay program in a large district.  

CEO Pedro Martinez said a test-to-stay program was more manageable in an environment where COVID cases were declining rather than during a surge. Still, Martinez said the district planned to expand the program to more schools.

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