On January 3, right before the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted to temporarily switch to remote learning, an independent observer noticed that district data and school data abruptly diverged.

After making an unannounced change in its COVID case reporting methods, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administrators have underreported school-specific COVID-19 case numbers since the beginning of the year as parents, teachers, and City officials determined if it was safe to return to in-person learning during the Omicron surge.

The inconsistency was discovered by a CPS parent and cloud engineer who has been tracking the numbers from home, and it has sparked anger from parents who feel they are not being given a complete picture of the state of COVID in their children’s schools.

In early January, as Jakob Ondrey was sending his children back to school, he noticed that COVID cases in CPS’s official dashboard were not matching the volume of notifications that parents were receiving about potential exposures at the school.

As parents tried to figure out how many classes were in quarantine, “something like twenty out of thirty classes had a letter [to parents],” he told the Weekly. “But then you would go to the CPS official dashboards, and there would be nothing there.”

Ondrey, a former technician in the special infectious disease lab at Lurie Children’s Hospital, started analyzing the data behind the Twitter bot that he launched independently in February 2021. The account automatically pulls COVID numbers directly from CPS databases.

He said that before the winter break, CPS was releasing pretty consistent COVID data for both individual schools and the district as a whole. But on January 3, right before the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted to temporarily switch to remote learning, he noticed that the data abruptly diverged and the rising number of cases across the district no longer matched the sum of cases that CPS was reporting from individual schools.

Ondrey said he reached out to CPS for clarification more than once and was unsuccessful. He said the data was presumably manipulated during the dispute between CPS and CTU to give parents the impression that the prevalence of COVID was not so bad in their child’s respective school.

He went to Twitter to vent: “Today I’ll share the story of how [CPS] has been displaying different sets of COVID data to intentionally deceive parents & the public about COVID in schools. I’ll share evidence about how and (shockingly) WHEN they started fudging the numbers.”

While district numbers skyrocketed as kids were heading back to the classroom on January 3, numbers for individual schools remained static, his graph showed.

Many educators and parents were able to relate and his tweet went viral.

During the week of January 9, for example, CPS data showed that Lane Tech had five cases, while Ondrey’s figures showed there were actually thirty-seven cases.

On his website, Ondrey keeps an interactive map of COVID cases in CPS schools over the past fourteen days. As of publication, it shows that Hubbard High School in West Lawn, Curie High School in West Elsdon, Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy in Brighton Park, and Hamline Elementary School in Back of the Yards had the largest number of total cases on the South Side.

In response to public pressure, a CPS spokesperson released a statement in which they admitted that CPS changed the way it published COVID numbers by school by opting to only report what they call “closed cases”–cases that have been verified by contact tracers–rather than all reported cases in a school. However, they denied that the change happened in early January and also cited privacy concerns as a reason for their decision to stop sharing school-specific data.

Ondrey’s takeaway is that CPS knowingly misled the public with “bad data” and didn’t notify them or apologize. He said, “the assertion of CPS that they are ‘not required to provide the data’ is offensive and dismissive to the 330,000 students in CPS and their families.”

He said he will continue to publish his daily findings on Twitter @CPSCovid.

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Jacqueline Serrato is the Weekly‘s editor-in-chief.

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