Claudette Bush

Claudette Bush, mother of the late jonL Bush, a special education classroom assistant at Carnegie Elementary School, 1414 E. 61st Place, who died of COVID-19 in November, speaks at a Dec. 6 press conference organized by the Chicago Teachers Union

Carnegie Elementary School employees and their unions are in uproar as COVID-19 cases have left 23% of students quarantined out of the classroom as of Dec. 7 and a special education classroom assistant at the school, jonL Bush, died of the disease last month.

Chicago Public Schools found 15 cases of COVID-19 from Nov. 28 to Dec. 4 at the school and nine cases the week before that. Multiple news sources, including the Tribune and Block Club, have quoted district statements saying that investigations of those cases “found no evidence of widespread or unchecked in-school transmission.”

As of Dec. 5, 113 Carnegie students were quarantined out of 488 enrolled.

CPS has been determined to open school buildings for in-school instruction this academic year. Except for a small online Virtual Academy, most of the district's hundreds of thousands of students have been attending school in person. Research has shown the deleterious effects remote learning has had on mental health and academic progress.

But at a Dec. 6 news conference outside of Carnegie, 1414 E. 61st Place, teachers at the school, CTU representatives and Bush's mother, Claudette Bush, said the risks are too high for workers and students to be in school buildings with the way CPS is running things.

"I'm not just hurt, I'm angry," Bush said. "I had to come out here to say my son, jonL Theseus Bush, who worked hard, earned his degrees, became a professional, spent his money to earn his degrees, is dead on something that could have been prevented," she said.

Bush said she is concerned for both CPS students and her other three children who work for the district. She said her son limited his exposure to situations wherein he might catch the virus and said before he died that he thought he caught it at Carnegie.

"We did not think for a moment that this would be unto death, but it was," Bush said. "My child today. Whose child tomorrow?"

(jonL Bush was vaccinated against the disease, though he had preexisting conditions that were COVID-19 comorbidities. His death represents a minute fraction of coronavirus breakthrough infections in vaccinated individuals that lead to death. The Chicago Department of Public Health has repeatedly linked the small number of deaths after breakthrough infections to preexisting conditions.)

Since Oct. 15, all CPS employees must be fully vaccinated or tested weekly. Staff and students are required to wear cloth face coverings at all times. Each classroom and front office has a high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) air purifier. The district has reported hiring 400 more custodians and investing $3.5 million in hand sanitizing dispensers and $2.94 million in disinfectant wipes.

Unvaccinated close contacts must quarantine for 10 days following an exposure, but vaccinated close contacts who are not showing COVID-19 symptoms do not need to quarantine and can go back to school.

Unionized teachers and CTU speakers at the press conference decried both the cleaning and testing protocols at the schools. Union President Jesse Sharkey said the public schools are short-staffed in terms of both educational and custodial workers. Chalkbeat has found that fewer than 10% of CPS students are doing the district's in-school COVID-19 testing program, and Sharkey said that fewer than 10% of Carnegie students are being tested a week and elsewhere in Chicago.

Beyond staffing and cleaning, district schools need vaccinations, Sharkey said. In ZIP code 60637, where Carnegie is located, 51.4% of residents 5 years old and older are fully vaccinated as of Dec. 5, and rates in Woodlawn proper are lower.

Dr. Alisa Coleman, one of the teacher members of Carnegie's Local School Council, said she fears for her life at Carnegie because of the 19 identified COVID-19 cases at the school and called for the school to return to remote learning, asking what more it will take for the district, city and its politicians to act.

"That is not an issue for this school because we have one-to-one technology," she said. "I've been here seven years, and for all seven years, every student has had access to a laptop, Chromebook or an iPad."

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates called for "a pause" and an evaluation of "what is not in our school communities." She said vaccines need to be anchored there: "Parents need to be able to roll up and see a tent where vaccines are available. Families need to roll up and see testing that is happening."

CPS has planned a vaccination event at Carnegie from 10 a.m. to noon on Monday, Dec. 13, and Monday, Jan. 3.

Brian Grauer, a teacher and union delegate whose classroom was recently isolated, said he is continuing to stay away from his parents because of his job for fear of infecting them.

"This community deserves better. Our students deserve better. The teachers who are putting their lives on the line every day deserve better," he said. "I have worked for CPS for 26 years now. Never, ever have I found that they deliver on their promises."

He said his students went back into their classroom after their quarantine without it being deep-cleaned and, after the press conference, that his HEPA filter operated for weeks with dirty filters without them being replaced, despite his requests.

Chareese Slaughter, another special education classroom assistant, said Carnegie does not have functioning sanitation stations outside of washrooms or enough cleaning supplies to keep the building clean.

"I'm working with smaller kids and upper-class kids as well, and I'm watching," she said. "There's no desks that's being sanitized. The children aren't sanitizing their spaces when they're leaving the classroom. There's a shortage of supplies, so we asked them for the supplies, and I haven't seen any since I've been here."

The Food and Drug Administration reports that people can get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the coronavirus on it and then touching their mouths, noses or possibly their eyes, but that this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. (The virus is a respiratory virus, ergo the masks and HEPA filters.) However, the FDA still advises using disinfectant products on appropriate surfaces and washing hands often, with soap and water when possible and with hand sanitizer when they are not available.

Executive Vice President Stacia Scott of SEIU Local 73, the union to which Bush belonged, said the union wants quarantines for close contacts whether or not people are vaccinated and a return to remote learning if there are three or more COVID-19 cases at a school.

Scott said CPS has rolled back safety measures, though the district and the Chicago Department of Public Health say the guidelines have evolved as more has become known about the disease and responding to it. The district is piloting a test-to-stay option to reduce quarantining numbers.

Bush's death is the second COVID-death-related incident to affect CPS this academic year. Two mothers of students at Jensen Elementary Scholastic Academy, 3030 W. Harrison St., died in September, though the city said the deaths were not related to in-school transmission.

After more than 200 students were quarantined at the beginning of October, Murray Language Academy, 5335 S. Kenwood Ave., detected 11 COVID-19 cases in November, resulting in, at peak, 184 students out of 477 enrolled, or 39% of the student body, being quarantined on Nov. 19. Principal Greg Mason declined comment.

SEIU Local 73 has announced a vigil tomorrow at 4:30 p.m. remembering Bush outside Carnegie.

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