Chicago School Board expands district spending authority for COVID-related expenses

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The Chicago School Board on Wednesday extended the district’s authority to spend funds on COVID-19 safety mitigation measures for the upcoming school year — a sign that the district will continue to take precautions amid new waves of variants that could disrupt prices.

Under a resolution passed Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools will have the authority to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic for the upcoming school year without obtaining board approval for every expense. The district will provide tests, vaccines, masks as well as cleaning products to respond to health emergencies related to COVID-19. The resolution will take effect from July 1 and will last until June 30, 2023.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, member Sendhil Revuluri, who voted against the extension, acknowledged the need for the district’s agility to meet the health and safety needs of students, but said that the district needed to be more strategic about spending related to COVID-19.

CPS officials said the authorization will allow the district to be nimble and act quickly when unplanned purchases are needed.

CEO Pedro Martinez said he was committed to ensuring board members had access to timely reports.

The district is negotiating its contract with its testing provider for the upcoming 2022-23 school year and could not provide a spending figure for the upcoming year. Thermo Fisher received a $60 million contract from CPS, but it’s unclear how much the district ultimately paid for school-based COVID testing throughout the school year.

Last week, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced that it would offer all public schools outside of Chicago the ability to use saliva-based COVID-19 testing through Shield Illinois for free for the upcoming school year.

When CPS fully reopened in the fall after 18 months of mostly distance learning, the district struggled to establish an effective school-based COVID screening program.

Chicago Public Schools conducted 127 tests in schools during the first week of classes between August 29 and September 4. At the start of the school year, the district also missed its deadline to implement a testing program at every school, citing staffing. shortages with Thermo Fisher.

In January, amid a further rise in cases, a majority of Chicago Teachers Union members voted to teach remotely due to concerns about the district’s COVID safety measures. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the district canceled classes for five days amid the dispute with her union.

After a week-long stalemate, district leaders and the union reached an agreement on a security plan. The deal included masks for teachers and students, more testing and details on when a school or class would return to remote. The union’s initial demands for a district-wide threshold to stop in-person instruction and an opt-out testing program have not been met.

After the mid-year disruption, the district ramped up its testing capacity, hitting a peak of 66,134 COVID tests between March 27 and April 2, the data showed.

The district moved to a mask-optional policy in mid-March, frustrating some parents. In May, a school and 21 other classrooms temporarily reinstated mask mandates after recording multiple cases of COVID-19.

From Aug. 29 to June 16, Chicago Public Schools had 22,568 cases of COVID-19 among students and 9,477 cases among staff, according to district records.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at [email protected].

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