Chicago Public Schools will miss this week’s COVID-19 testing deadline

The nation’s third largest school district says it will now aim to offer testing at every district campus by the end of September — roughly a month after its original goal of the start of school.  | Scott Olson / Getty Images

Chicago Public Schools will miss a Wednesday deadline for fully rolling out a COVID-19 testing program for students and staff, and a district official said only 3% of students had signed up so far.

The nation’s third largest school district says it will now aim to offer testing at every district campus by the end of September — roughly a month after its original goal of the start of school.

A district spokeswoman blamed the delay on vendor background checks for the staff who would supervise the campus-based testing. The district has contracted with a Massachusetts-based vendor, ThermoFisher, to conduct the nasal swab based testing.

But parents and administrators warned this week that there hadn’t been much communication about the program.

The district said it expected to offer testing at 170 of about 500 district-managed schools by Friday. More schools will offer the test as testing company staff clear background checks, the district said.

Even as the program struggles to become fully operational, only a fraction of students and staff have signed up. As of Sept. 8, only about 9,400 students and about 6,000 staff members had so far opted into the testing, a spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday.

Parents say the district has not broadly advertised how to opt into the testing program. Parents can fill out a permission slip online or can sign up with a paper version of the opt-in form that they submit to their schools.

COVID-19 testing has proved logistically tricky for Chicago Public Schools.

One principal said he had received testing materials in the mail but no instructions about what to do with them. Another told Chalkbeat he was informed the testing program was coming to his school but no one showed up to administer the test on the assigned day.

The principals did not want to be named because they were not authorized to speak on the record by the district.

There is increasing pressure for Chicago Public Schools to deliver on a promise to offer voluntary testing weekly to students and staff.

Interim CEO José Torres pledged in a letter to families that the district would begin offering tests on all campuses during the first week of school. But about a week later, the district said it would need an extension until Sept. 15 to fully implement the program.

The surveillance testing program has been a point of contention during negotiations between the district and its teachers union, which have so far failed to yield a written reopening agreement. The district committed to testing all students and employees who volunteer to participate in the program every week. But the union had wanted a mandatory testing program such as the one the Los Angeles school district adopted, in which a weekly COVID test is a prerequisite for coming to campus.

The delay in the testing program comes at a time when some families and school leaders are voicing concern about apparent lags in notifying close contacts of school-based COVID cases that they need to quarantine — and about a district COVID tracker that hasn’t caught up to confirmed cases.

The district reported last Wednesday that 71 students and 89 employees had confirmed cases of coronavirus, with almost 3,000 children and staff identified as close contacts. But some parents have said they have been notified about confirmed cases in their schools that are not yet reflected in the data.

Those numbers in the 340,000-student district are dwarfed by those in much smaller districts elsewhere in Illinois and other states, particularly districts that unlike Chicago have not mandated masks. The Chicago Department of Public Health is reporting that in the first roughly two weeks of school, coronavirus cases among children 17 and younger actually declined, following an overall trend of declining infections in the city.

President Joe Biden last week called on districts to roll out regular testing programs. Illinois’ efforts will be closely watched, as the state has rolled out a free testing program designed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign called SHIELD Illinois.

As of last week, about 45% of the state’s schools had signed up.

But Chicago is not able to take advantage of the free program because it received a separate pot of federal funding for testing, a district spokeswoman said last week.

One Chicago Public School principal, who requested anonymity, said eight boxes with testing kids, rubber gloves, and other supplies for the surveillance testing program arrived on campus Aug. 31 and have been stacked in that principal’s office ever since.

But there has been no update on when staff from the district’s testing vendor will come to administer tests. So the school has not shared information with families on giving consent for students to be tested, on the assumption that’s up to the district.

“This is a centrally managed program, and I don’t know enough about it to step into a level of responsibility for it,” that principal said. “If I share it, that makes it seem like I know about it.”

The principal said families have not been clamoring for the program, and with staff required to become fully vaccinated by Oct. 15, the employee portion of the program will become less relevant.

School leaders are much more concerned about contact tracing delays, the principal said. In some cases, that has meant that families whose students might have been exposed to COVID at school receive notices just days before their 14-day quarantines are to expire. Now, school leaders report cases to the district’s contact tracing team and are reluctant to take any action before hearing back with instructions, which have been slow to arrive because of a backlog.

“The delays in contact tracing are real,” that school leader said. “These are institutional roadblocks we can’t get around.”

COVID testing in schools can help catch infections early and lower the risk of in-school transmission by keeping infected individuals out of schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Testing can also help families feel more secure about sending their children to school in person.

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