A debate over the pandemic safety of public school students, which some health experts thought was already resolved, resurfaced this winter with the rapid rise in COVID-19 infections due to the highly contagious variant of Omicron.
In Chicago, where 272,000 students have not attended classes for nearly a week due to teachers’ concerns about school safety, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has insisted that schools remain open despite the The city’s record coronavirus outbreak, arguing that vaccines have made in-person learning safer and claiming the city has found little to no transmission at school.
Those with safety concerns responded by pointing to state data that appeared to show more than 40% of Illinois residents who were suspected of being positive for COVID-19 had visited schools. Amplified by the Chicago Teachers Union and shared thousands of times on social media, the numbers have fueled the fire in the argument over whether schools are safe enough during this wave. But experts – and even state officials – now say there are many caveats with this data, including that the sample size is far too small for meaningful conclusions.
Many doctors have said that sending children to school requires careful analysis of the risks and benefits. While there is a detriment to distance learning students who fall behind in their studies and feel socially isolated, mitigation efforts such as masking, social distancing, and screening need to be carried out with precision.
And the arrival of the Omicron variant, which has skyrocketed infections, added to that calculation.
“It all depends on the mitigation measures put in place”, said Dr Eve Bloomgarden, co-founder of a healthcare provider advocacy group known as IMPACT. “There is no reason to believe that schools are not sources of transmission.”
Chicago public school officials say they’ve taken all of these considerations into account, spending more than $ 100 million on tests, masks, improved ventilation and more.
“Honestly to God, it’s a matter of public health across this country whether schools dramatically increase the risk of COVID transmission,” Health Commissioner Dr Allison Arwady, pediatrician and epidemiologist, told the municipal councilors of a health and human relations committee of the municipal council. hearing Monday.
On Monday, Arwady provided data showing that less than 5% of CPS students quarantined due to potential exposure at school this year ended up testing positive for the virus. She argued it was because of the strict mitigation protocols in place at CPS schools, which led to very low case rates in the district this fall.
However, much of this data comes from the Delta wave and does not take into account the more contagious Omicron. Students and teachers at some schools in the city have also reported non-existent social distancing and inconsistent and unruly mask wearing, especially when face covers are removed for lunch periods. Communities have varying vaccination rates and the majority of CPS students are still not vaccinated even though the district has organized hundreds of vaccination events.
The final argument made by the teachers’ union and its supporters concerned potential exposure location data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, listed on a webpage and a data graph that appears to show schools are in. far the main source of potential exposure to COVID-19.
But the figures come with caveats and are an example of the incomplete and imperfect collection of personal information through a process known as contact tracing, which has encountered many challenges throughout the nearly two years of pandemic.
While the high percentage of potential COVID exposures in schools across the state stands out, the data represents less than 15,000 cases as the state has reported nearly 2.4 million in total. Indeed, contact tracers in the state and nation have mostly failed to reach more infected patients to ask them about their fate before they test positive.
The data in question comes from local health departments except Chicago, which feed their contact tracing information to a centralized state system.
Cook County identifies schools as its main source of potential COVID exposures among the locations listed in contact tracing interviews. Schools accounted for almost 60% of source locations with just under 3,300 cases identifying schools, compared with around 250 cases, or less than 5% of respondents identifying restaurants or bars. Cook County health officials declined to comment.
DuPage County, which among Illinois health departments provides one of the most detailed explanations for COVID outbreaks, reports public schools represent fourth highest number of infections behind long-term care facilities duration, assisted living centers and skilled nursing homes. Almost 500 infections from 128 epidemics have been recorded in DuPage public schools. Private schools came next with 274 infections after 39 outbreaks.
These figures detail actual outbreaks, not potential locations of exposure. But then again, these numbers are only a small representation of the total number of cases. Outbreak-linked COVID-19 cases globally represent less than 10% of the total, according to the county health department.
DuPage health officials support “face-to-face learning with layered prevention strategies,” Department of Health spokesperson Kimberly Siebert said.
“The top priority is to ensure that all children have access to in-person instruction this year in a way that prioritizes the health and safety of students, teachers, school staff, their families and children. the community, ”Siebert said. Some DuPage school districts have temporarily suspended in-person classes this month to bring the virus under control.
Even state health officials who release the data are warning the public not to misinterpret the numbers. State data shows “places where exposure to COVID-19 may have occurred, but is not definitive,” said IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold.
“Children are our least immunized population and are likely to list schools as one of the places they’ve been found where they could have been exposed,” Arnold said. “The exhibits do not confirm that this is where they catch COVID-19. “
The majority of infected or potentially infected state residents between the ages of 5 and 18 have likely been to school, she added. “An individual can say they may have been on display in a church, school, home, and restaurant,” Arnold said, and each of those locations would be listed in the dataset. But with health departments focusing contact tracing on schools and long-term care facilities, people who have visited these places are sure to be overrepresented in the data.
Chicago’s health commissioner Arwady said in an interview with the Sun-Times that she told state officials months ago that the city would not participate in this data collection.
“I think it has the potential to confuse people, which it is,” she said. “This is absolute nonsense, I’m just being honest with you. One of the reasons why [Chicago] there is no data I think that data presented in this way does not help people understand the risk.
“We track the number of outbreaks in different settings, we track the size of outbreaks in different settings, we share that information. … This is not the data that an epidemiologist anywhere in the country would use to assess the question people are trying to answer incorrectly. “
Children must “go about their business”: a doc from the U of C
A number of private doctors have said that children’s risks of infection in school outweigh the negative impact of young people falling behind in their education and the depression and social isolation they may feel. without access to in-person learning.
“A lot of measures have been taken. Does this mean that there is no chance of transmission? Of course not. But they reduced the odds, ”said Dr. Daniel Johnson, head of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Chicago.
It is imperative that all teachers are immunized and immunized and that all eligible children – anyone aged 5 or older – get immunized, said Johnson, a strong supporter of keeping children in school.
“We have to make the children reasonably safe in the classroom, but they have to go about their business,” Johnson said. “What is the children’s business? It’s learning and socializing.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.