Chicago Public Schools defends change in the way it reports COVID-19 cases online after aldermen demand answers

On his second day as Chicago Public Schools CEO, Pedro Martinez promised transparency in the way the district publicly reports student and staff member COVID-19 cases.

“On our website, we will be reporting out cases daily. We will be more complete. We will not only just show active cases, we’ll show quarantine. Please give us some grace. Because it is daily, that means there will be some cleanup of data,” Martinez said at a Sept. 30 news conference with city public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

CPS came under fire last week when it was revealed the district had quietly changed the method by which it presents COVID-19 data on its public dashboard to only show closed cases at individual schools instead of all reported cases of COVID-19 among staff and students, as the district had done since September. The backlash grew as CPS continued to experience an omicron-fueled surge in infections, with 660 adult cases and a record 2,200 student cases reported districtwide last week.

The district’s dashboard change was noticed by parent and cloud engineer Jakob Ondrey, who maintains his own website that tracks and visualizes COVID-19 cases reported by CPS. He pointed out that parents visiting the dashboard to find out case numbers at their children’s school would not get a complete picture of the cases reported by students and staff of the school. His Twitter thread drew attention from elected officials such as aldermen Brian Hopkins, 2nd, Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd, and Maria Hadden, 49th, who demanded answers from the district.

In a statement Friday afternoon, the district said it discloses on its public dashboard all reported cases at the district level, but recently switched to only showing cases that have been investigated by district contact tracers on the individual school pages of the dashboard.

“This change was made to provide a more accurate number of closed positive and confirmed cases and to protect the privacy of our students and staff, especially in some of our school settings where the case count was very low and there was subsequent speculation about the health status of specific individuals,” the CPS statement read.

The district promised to reevaluate its data reporting “in light of the omicron surge and in the interest of broader transparency.”

The district’s dashboard falls short in other areas as well. CPS does not share vaccination rates of students on its dashboard, as it does staff members. A CPS representative recently told the Tribune that the Chicago Department of Public Health only provides vaccination data to CPS twice a month. The CPS dashboard also doesn’t provide case numbers for its 100-plus charter schools. More than 330,000 students are enrolled in CPS, the nation’s third-largest district.

When CPS reached a safety agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union this month after a battle that saw classes canceled for five days, the district promised it would share on its dashboard the number of classrooms or school buildings that transitioned to remote learning because they met the thresholds set in the safety deal. That information has not been reported on CPS’ dashboard.

The district is reporting 20,500 students and 865 adults in isolation because they tested positive for COVID-19 or in quarantine because they came in contact with an infected person. CPS has repeatedly expressed confidence in its contact tracing process, though some parents and teachers have reported delays in hearing about positive cases that affect them.