A coronavirus outbreak at a West Side school where at least one parent has died from the disease has sparked outrage from teachers and parents who say Chicago Public Schools has not done enough to keep students and staff safe during in-person learning this fall.
There have been at least eight confirmed cases of coronavirus in the past two weeks at Jensen Elementary School, 3030 W. Harrison St., according to district data. More than 200 people have been exposed. Jensen has 297 students.
District officials have said people who have been exposed must quarantine if they are not vaccinated. The majority of students at Jensen, which serves preschool through eighth grade, are not old enough to be vaccinated. Eleven classrooms at the school were quarantined until Monday, when eight of the classes were set to return, parents and teachers said.
Jensen parent Shenitha “Angel” Curry, 43, died of complications of coronavirus last week, her family told the Sun-Times. Curry was not vaccinated and her family said her daughter was among the Jensen students who had to quarantine.
Chicago Teachers Union leaders said another Jensen parent also has died from coronavirus, but Block Club could not verify that.
The district’s handling of the outbreak reveals a lack of a cohesive safety plan across the city, critics said. Despite serving an especially vulnerable community where vaccination rates are behind city averages, CPS did not implement sufficient protocols for testing, vaccinations, contact tracing or virtual learning until after the outbreak turned deadly, parent Jermaine Thomas said.
CTU organizers and parents want in-school classes shut down until better precautions are in place.
“If we allow our children to keep coming back in, what are the protocols for them coming back into a safe environment? There ain’t one. … We need to have testing. We need to have deep cleaning,” said Thomas, who also sits on Jensen’s local school council. “We are demanding a shutdown.”
A CPS spokesperson said based on their analysis of symptoms, test dates and known out-of-school exposures, “there is no evidence of in-school-transmission of COVID-19 to students at Jensen Elementary.”
Curry’s sister, Jasyma Johnson, said the mother of two was fearful of the pandemic from the beginning and was cautious about her health.
“She didn’t want to get sick. She didn’t leave the house. The kids did want to go to school, but she didn’t want to leave,” Johnson said. “They mandated kids to return to school without any options. … She didn’t have that choice. That’s why CPS can’t say they’re not responsible.”
Johnson lives in Naperville. She noted that local school district had a cohesive safety plan including weekly testing and remote learning options for students and families who are high-risk.
“[I am] grieving over my sister who would still be here if she lived 25 miles west, it would be different,” Johnson said. “This is an issue of the haves and the have nots. It’s not right.”
CPS partnered with Lurie Children’s Hospital to offer testing at Jensen on Tuesday, district officials said in a statement. This is the first time in the school year when Jensen had onsite testing available, according to teachers and union members.
The district initially planned to offer onsite testing at all schools by the start of the academic year, but that goal has been repeatedly pushed back, Chalkbeat Chicago reported. District leaders now are saying it will be in place this week. CPS leaders also said last week it will ramp up its contact tracing in schools.
“We opened last year with less students and had more in place for safety procedures. We opened this year with more students, and have less [safety protocols,]” said LaShawn Wallace, an organizer with the Chicago Teacher’s Union.
Parents complained the quarantines at Jensen were also mismanaged. The district follows Chicago Department of Public Health requirements that anyone exposed to someone sick with coronavirus isolate for 14 days. Vaccinated people do not have to quarantine. But dozens of Jensen students were set to return to school Monday after just 10 days, parents said.
“My baby came back in 10 days. Why? But if I make her stay home, then what happens? We get in trouble. There’s no way she should’ve been back without the full 14 days,” said Shauntee Colston, a parent and local school council member.
While students were home from school, they lacked the necessary support to stay engaged in their classes because the district didn’t have a plan in place for remote learning during a quarantine, teachers said. The school was not supplied with enough digital devices to make sure students had laptops and tablets to work on while at home, said Carrene Beverly-Bass, a teacher and union delegate for Jensen.
“There are not enough Chromebooks. The district network has been made aware of this problem and there has been no movement to getting additional Chromebooks for our students,” Beverly-Bass said. “Chromebooks should be made available to each and every one of our Jensen students, even without a pandemic. Where’s the equity they talked about in all this?”
Contact tracing efforts were also too slow and lacked the transparency to stem the spread of the outbreak at Jensen, critics said.
“Contact tracing did not happen in an effective way. We know this firsthand. We heard from sick parents who were never contacted by the Chicago Department of Public Health or contact tracers from CPS,” said Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
When the quarantined students were sent back to school, the district brought them back “without even requiring the kids to have negative COVID test results,” said 2nd grade teacher Arielle Chestleigh.
Protocols for safe, in-person learning must include a vaccination plan to increase vaccine rates in the most vulnerable communities, weekly testing, contact tracing within 48 hours of exposure and daily deep cleanings, advocates said.
“We will no longer accept no plan. Our families, our students and our community, deserve a plan,” Chestleigh said.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.