After a Chicago special education aide tested positive for coronavirus, forcing the first school closure here, parents at Vaughn Occupational High School are organizing a food pantry, sending out urgent messages in Spanish and Polish, and scrambling to figure out what child care looks like during a 10-day voluntary quarantine announced Saturday by the city. 

By Sunday evening, the district said it had nearly completed a thorough environmental cleaning of Vaughn. Its facilities staff would disinfect “high-touch areas” like handrails, light switches, and doorknobs in all schools daily, schools chief Janice Jackson and the district’s Chief Health Officer Kenneth Fox wrote in a letter to staff and families.

Shutting down a school would prove difficult under any circumstance. But Vaughn Occupational, on Chicago’s Northwest Side, presents officials with an even more complicated situation.

That’s because the 200-plus students have complex disabilities and many travel from across the city to receive services from 85 educators and specialists. Some are medically fragile, said Susan Hickey, a social worker at the school.

Disability advocates are worried about the children, who can be more susceptible to illnesses. “The coronavirus poses a greater risk to students with complex medical needs,” said Chris Yun, an education policy analyst at the disability advocacy Access Living, citing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about elevated risk for older adults and people with underlying medical conditions.  

Jackson and city Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady said in a joint appearance Saturday that the city has begun a “robust individual outreach process” to students and staff at the school to assess who may have had contact with the aide, who is hospitalized in stable condition.

In the appearance, which was shared over social media, Arwady said students and staff who’d been at Vaughn anytime from Feb. 25 on should self-quarantine through March 18 and that health officials would be monitoring anyone who’d come in “close contact” with the aide — defining “close contact” as a face-to-face interaction that lasted 10 minutes or more. 

Sunday afternoon, staff members received an email saying they will be sent a survey about their health, and a request to report their body temperature readings.

“You will continue to receive emails from us twice a day (once in the morning, once in the afternoon) until March 18,” the email read.

The Department of Public Health will arrange for free virus testing for those reporting any suspicious symptoms, the email said.

A phone line also has been set up for affected families needing food assistance.

Earlier over the weekend, parents and staff at Vaughn and beyond were questioning whether proper precautions were being taken. The school, which draws students citywide and does not have attendance boundaries, shares buses with other campuses, and Vaughn students have siblings at other schools who risk potential exposure. When announcing the self-quarantines for students and staff on Saturday, public health officials said the immediate risk to the general public was low and that the measure did not extend to siblings. 

Hickey, who has peppered the district with questions but gotten few answers, is worried about students and her colleagues. Vaughn has scores of staffers, including various therapists, hearing specialists and nurses, as well as bus drivers, aides and others, including special education case managers who Hickey said met at Vaughn during the risk period.

Hickey first heard about the school’s closure on the 5 p.m. Friday news.  The Chicago district had emailed employees after school that day.

“There are tons of people that go in” to the campus, she said. She wants to know who has been notified, how they’ll be paid, and when they’ll hear more. Instead, she said, district managers seem to be sticking to a prepared script of comments and is saying that the communications staff is handling responses. (The district said it is in the process of contacting staff, vendors, and other adults who were in the building during the specified time period when the aide was sick and asking them to stay home for the quarantine period.)

One parent, who asked that her name not be used for fear of drawing negative attention to her school, has a son who is picked up by the same bus that Vaughn students ride, after it drops them off. 

The virus is spread by people breathing in droplets emitted from infected sneezes or coughs, and also between people who are in close contact, according to the CDC.  It is also thought to spread by someone touching contaminated surfaces and then touching their mouth or nose. 

The parent says she wonders if the quarantine should be broader. 

“Kids on the bus may be the lowest risk, but we don’t know, because I am seeing different reports about how the virus could spread,” she said. 

“Anyone who has been on that bus — have they been tested? If they are clear, we have no issue, but if they are not we should be quarantined,” she said. “I don’t want to send a false alarm, but I do want to be responsible.” 

Specifically on the issue of buses, Chicago Department of Public Health officials have said children who share bus routes with Vaughn or who have come in contact with students can attend work or school as long as they are not sick.

The district also has a hotline for Vaughn staff and families and, with the city’s health department, has set up an FAQ page for public school families. 

Many questions remain about the nature of the virus itself, including how quickly it can spread and its mortality rate. And that’s upping anxiety for parents and families.   

But closing a school comes with its own challenges. Working parents rely on schools for child care, and children living in poverty rely on them for meals. There is a specific set of challenges, too, for children who require specialized care, said Cindy Ok, chair of Vaughn’s Local School Council and the mother of a child with autism. The special needs of the students at the school, and the parents’ limited resources, make it difficult to find adequate care for students while the school is closed.

Ok, who also has isolated herself in her home because she recently visited the school, said that Vaughn parents might have to choose between leaving a child alone and missing work. 

Three-quarters of Vaughn families live below the poverty line, according to district figures, and many are immigrants, she said. “They need support every day,” she said. 

The scramble to find child care almost certainly will be more difficult as caregivers also fear potential exposure to the coronavirus. 

Ok hopes that donations, which she is coordinating through Facebook groups geared to Vaughn parents, may alleviate some of the burden on parents facing tough choices. 

Already, she said, “about 30 parents have either reached out to me via email, text, also messenger, whatever they could. Some people need a little more help than others. I’m trying to stop them from panic mode.”

Hickey, 71, fears that the school district will be unable to contain the virus.

But, she said, “I can’t panic. I am worried about the kids.”

On her doctor’s orders she went to a clinic, which told her the health department would have to test her. The clinic took her temperature and listened to her lungs, and told her to wait to hear from health authorities. She’s staying home.

“I’m feeling I’m going to be OK. I might be wrong.,” she said. “But I think I’ll be OK.” 

Sharon Noguchi and Cassie Walker Burke contributed reporting. 

This story has been updated to clarify that public health officials have said that students who share bus routes with Vaughn Occupational should continue to attend school unless they are sick.