CHICAGO, Nov. 3, 2021 — With children ages 5-11 now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, information obtained from Chicago Public Schools through the Freedom of Information Act reveals that fewer than 1,000 of all eligible students ages 12-17 have been vaccinated at each of the district’s four regional vaccination sites. Parents and school staff continue to have significant concerns about the City and Chicago Public Schools’ plan for increasing vaccinations for students after the district revealed yesterday that just 47 percent of eligible students have been vaccinated.
This new data came on the same day that Mayor Lightfoot and her CPS team walked back its commitment “to testing 100 percent of CPS students and staff each week,” first made on August 6. Since then, CPS has missed multiple deadlines for weekly testing, and announced yesterday that it will soon begin a “test to stay” program to reduce the number of students in quarantine.
“It remains to be seen how CPS is going to all of a sudden ‘test to stay’ when it took them weeks after the start of the school year to begin testing at all,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.
CPS is currently averaging only 34 vaccinations a week across its four regional COVID vaccination sites. The concern among parents and educators is that with children ages 5-11 now eligible for the COVID vaccine, there is no plan in place to provide access for CPS families, just as there was no place in place for COVID testing to start the school year. The district has done a poor job thus far of obtaining consent from parents for regular COVID testing, and would need that same type of consent from parents to test-to-stay.
Despite the small numbers, students are still being vaccinated, which is vital as we enter the colder months of the year. The Union has been clear that vaccinations for everyone eligible is vital to mitigating the pandemic, and has fought for regional vaccination sites for educators and staff since January, then pushed for sites to be opened up to families and communities.
CPS has thousands of employees and the capacity to launch a city-wide campaign around outreach and engagement. But simply giving administrators a custom-made flyer with dates and times, and placing the burden of notification, promotion and safety entirely on principals, is not the way to ensure safety for hundreds of thousands of students and their families.
“The district should set up a vaccination clinic at every school, organize after-school events and provide significant incentives for families,” President Sharkey said. “Claiming that ‘everything is fine’ while short-changing the safety of other people’s children is no way to build trust.”
CPS has not done any targeted outreach in communities with the highest rates of COVID infection. The vaccination rate for CPS students lags the citywide vaccination rate for the same age group, which is at 58 percent. Racial disparities seen in COVID hospitalizations among children ages 5-11 are nearly the same as seen in adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
There are proven models for broad-based vaccinations, and targeted and direct outreach to families, in both Los Angeles and in New Jersey, where vaccination rates have doubled in two months. This should serve as a model for districts across the country — including CPS — to provide access to students and families most in need. But the district must be willing to look beyond marketing and public relations to put actual people power behind efforts at engagement.
“Dr. Arwady says that she doesn’t want children fighting for vaccinations like in ‘The Hunger Games,’ but the best way to get the kids vaccinated as rapidly as possible is in their schools,” said CPS parent Leigh Mabry.
“I’m excited for our noon appointment at Walgreens Monday, but we can only accomplish that because we are homeschooling until fully vaccinated,” Mabry added. “School-based vaccination clinics and excused absences are essential to our goal.”
While CPS plans to reduce testing to keep educators and students out of quarantine and in classrooms, conditions in schools are at one of the lowest points in years with major problems with cleanliness, violence, transportation and staffing. Educators and families both are tired of filthy buildings and have demanded improvements in cleaning, in addition to adequate substitute coverage, trauma and healing support, and changes in bus transportation, which has been extremely stressful at the start of the year for thousands of special education families.
Yesterday, the Union reached agreement with the district to limit the scope and impact of REACH evaluation for the majority of rank-and-file members this year. REACH evaluation has been proven to have a disproportionately negative impact on Black teachers. Thanks to educator advocacy, CPS will also invest an additional $10 million this year to address staffing shortages — particularly among substitute teachers.
The Union continues to bargain with the district around the following demands:
- Robust weekly COVID testing of all students and staff.
- Fast contact tracing built on best practices.
- A district-wide vaccination program to support all school communities.
- Additional school personnel, including nurses, substitute teachers and social workers, to address staffing shortages in a pandemic also marred by the trauma of gun violence.
- A science-based metric to indicate when the number of positive COVID-19 cases in schools affects students’ ability to safely learn in-person.