East Article, originally published in English by Chalkbeat Chicago, is available in Spanish thanks to the project “Translating Chicago News”, of the Institute of Nonprofit News (INN).
Under pressure to decide to reopen Chicago’s schools in the second quarter, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city is closely watching the experiences Catholic schools have had since they reopened.
In August, the Archdiocese of Chicago reopened its schools for face-to-face classes, also giving families the option to choose distance learning. Its officials say they are following strict sanitary measures and consider its reopening a success so far.
But the archdiocese has not released information about the number of COVID-19 cases in its schools, how many times students and employees have been quarantined, or even what percentage of the students’ families opted for remote learning.
That makes it difficult to evaluate the school year.
Chalkbeat Chicago spoke with Archdiocese director of human resources and spokesman Justin Lombardo to comment on the schools reopening, and on the experience of Catholic campuses so far and ideas it might have for other school systems.
This interview has been edited.
Chalkbeat Chicago: What was the basis for the Archdiocese’s decision to reopen its schools in person last summer, when even the majority of public schools in the Chicago area chose to do so virtually?
Justin Lombardo: We start planning months in advance before making a decision. We knew that we needed to consider the views of different public health spheres and guidelines, as well as our mission and commitment to our students and their families throughout the archdiocese.
We invited two infectious disease physicians, who are faculty members of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern, as well as practicing physicians and proxies, to advise us. One of the key influences for us was the statements of the American Academy of Pediatrics (which indicated that the primary goal should be to reopen classrooms whenever possible).
We also conducted a survey of our attorneys. More than 85% told us that they wanted us to do everything possible to bring children back to classrooms. Very relevant opinion for us, since the proxies are also part of our religious community. We sent our ideas to our consulting physicians and health departments, and it was recognized that we were different, for example, to the Chicago Public Schools.
CB: In what way was your situation different from the Chicago Public Schools?
JL: First of all, the size and flexibility. In other words, the size of public schools is obviously much larger than our schools. Our schools are mostly smaller and that allows us to be more flexible. Additionally, our schools are part of a larger physical plant that our parishes run. That gives us the flexibility to use additional spaces such as patios and outdoor areas to even indoor spaces such as rooms or church basements.
CB: Did all the schools that are part of the archdiocese reopen for full-time face-to-face classes?
JL: We offered each school and their parents the opportunity for their children to return to face-to-face classes and we also gave the option of distance learning for the children. We understood that in some cases, it was difficult for parents to want to bring their children back because they could be from more vulnerable populations. I would say that probably 95% of the schools, most of the children attend the face-to-face classes.
CB: Could you tell me what percentage of your students are learning remotely?
JL: I don’t have that number because the numbers vary as there are schools that have very few students taking classes remotely and there are other schools where the number is much higher.
CB: Is there anything that stands out about the schools where most families chose virtual teaching? Is there anything about their locations and demographics that could explain why they chose this way?
JL: No, not really. At least nothing of what we have analyzed.
CB: How did the archdiocese prepare for the reopening? What security measures were put in place before the students returned to schools?
JL: We developed a plan that established a series of regulations, – from taking the temperatures of the students when they arrive in the morning to the order of the classrooms so that the students maintain their distance, to how to handle recess, to what to do if a child seems to feel bad when you arrive in the morning. Each school then had to create a plan that covered all aspects for a safe reopening. We then certified the schools that were ready to open. Central to our plan is the notion of cohort or educational group, which is present to a large extent in the information found on the reopening of schools. In classes, the same group of children stay together every day. They do not separate at any time or go to different rooms. These kids are together all day.
CB: What is the size of the educational groups in your schools?
JL: They are from 15 to 23 [personas].
CB: The Chicago Teachers Union has stated that it wants to see a strict protocol for contact traceability if schools are to reopen. The archdiocese instructed a contact follow-up protocol. How does this work?
JL: We have a team of professionals with experience in [este tipo de] interviews and research papers, as well as two nurses. We also do follow-up within our parishes because we believe that it is our responsibility as an organization. The process begins with a report that reaches our core team, who reacts by immediately contacting the manager for further details. Is it a positive case? Is it an exposure to a positive case? Or is it a presumptive positive case (a case where a patient tests positive by a public health lab, but the results have not been confirmed by the CDC)?
We have an intervention protocol in each case, but first we deal with positive cases. We immediately collect data on the individual, and quarantine the school group. We have a standard procedure for notifying families of students who are in quarantine, what to do and where to go. We, of course, maintain privacy, and never expose the identity of the person [infectada].
I would say that the vast majority of positive cases we receive in our schools come from broadcasts by family contact or broadcasts by group settings outside of school. We have many cases where the family or the parents or older siblings went to a party where there was no social distancing and no masks were used. We have had situations where there are student sports leagues that are not run by the archdiocese or by our schools, where the precautions may not have been properly taken.
Our measurements are comprehensive and complete. And that has led us to have very good results. So in all the cases in Chicago, where we have had one case reported in one of our cohorts, there has only been one situation where a second case was reported within 14 days of the time of infection. Now, we have about 40,000 students and 5,000 employees in our schools, and in the city of Chicago alone, we have 91 schools with a population of 19,000 students, plus another 2,700 employees. That is pretty good.
CB: Can you tell us how many cases you have had in your schools and how many times your students have had to quarantine as a result of those cases?
JL: I don’t have an exact figure, but I can tell you that our rate of positive cases, which is a key rate, is less than 1%. That shows [que estamos haciendo] excellent work.
CB: But I insist, you cannot tell us the number of cases or the number of times that it has had to be quarantined?
JL: No, not at this time.
CB: You mentioned that a proxy survey was conducted. Did they ask for input or input from teachers in making a decision, and what was the response?
JL: We had participation from several teachers from different schools, who represented different groups of teachers. Most of our teachers have returned to classrooms and many of them are happy to return. Now, it would be dishonest to say that there were not some who were concerned or had doubts. (Note: Some Catholic school teachers have expressed concern and have demanded that only distance learning be done.)
But for the most part, after a couple of days, the teachers took a deep breath of relief, and were happy to go back to the classrooms with their students. The vast majority of our teachers showed up, did their jobs responsibly, and have been heroes to us for showing so much dedication.
CB: Did you notice an unusual increase in the number of teachers who decided to retire or resign?
JL: No significant increase. We had some teachers who indicated that for personal reasons they did not want to teach in person. We tried, where possible, to see if there was a way to hire them in schools that had a high enrollment for remote learning. But in some cases, we were unable to accommodate your requests to teach remotely.
CB: Have you heard from your teachers if they have concerns or anxiety situations as the school year has progressed?
JL: No, I don’t think so. Honestly, if a school has a child or a staff member or school group that has to quarantine, it immediately generates a thought of, “Oh, we started again.” But usually that thinking subsides, because everyone is working together to make sure that people are notified and that we continue to practice hygiene and safety standards. In a pandemic, there is no place where you are 100% safe. Now, everyone in our daily lives, unfortunately, is accepting a level of risk. If we are safe, if we follow guidelines, if we wash our hands, if we wear our masks, if we maintain social distance, then we have mitigated the risk to the best of our ability.
CB: Chicago Public Schools officials have said that ventilation systems and air quality in classrooms are situations that should be examined before face-to-face classes resume. How did you address those issues?
JL: We alerted schools to keep ventilation running for as long as possible, to open windows in classrooms, to take children outside for recess to get fresh air, and even have some classes go outside. outdoors where there can be a distance of 6 feet (2 meters) so they can rest from wearing the masks so much.
We looked for well ventilated areas to be used as much as possible. Now that the cold is approaching, we know that we must have additional spaces. We are studying different options. Some schools install air filters and we are implementing a system in case schools need it, and we are here to fully provide them.
Translated by Marcela Cartagena