Vaughn par­ents unite in quar­an­tine

Com­mu­nity sup­ports fam­i­lies af­ter school aide tests pos­i­tive

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Christy Gu­towski

Bar­bara Mur­phy has tried to hide her fears from her quar­an­tined 15-year-old son, keep­ing him calm and oc­cu­pied while wor­ry­ing for days that he was in­fected by the new coro­n­avirus.

The Chicago teen is one of more than 200 stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties at Vaughn Oc­cu­pa­tional High School who have been asked to re­main in their homes since late March 6, when it was con­firmed that a spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion class­room aide had the virus. His med­i­cal fragili­ties place him at high risk for de­vel­op­ing COVID-19; born with a rare birth de­fect that didn’t al­low his lungs to grow fully, John also has autism and epilepsy.

“He doesn’t un­der­stand all this,” Mur­phy said. “He’s very con­fused and won­der­ing why he’s not go­ing to school . ... He’s a so­cial guy, and I think is re­ally miss­ing out on seeing his friends.”

Au­thor­i­ties have asked any­one who was in­side the Vaughn school build­ing be­tween Feb. 25 and March 6 to re­main home — un­less they need to seek med­i­cal care — through March 18. Though not all fam­ily mem­bers are sub­ject to the quar­an­tine, many par­ents such as Mur­phy are stay­ing in as their child deals with the stresses of home con­fine­ment and fear of ill­ness.

The shut-in sce­nario would be dif­fi­cult for any par­ent, but Vaughn fam­i­lies have par­tic­u­larly com­plex chal­lenges. Lo­cated in Portage Park, the high school serves stu­dents with cog­ni­tive, de­vel­op­men­tal and mul­ti­ple dis­abil­i­ties. So th­ese par­ents are not only miss­ing work, they are can­cel­ing im­por­tant doc­tor ap­point­ments and ther­a­pies and mak­ing do with­out the ex­tra help some would re­ceive if their home wasn’t on a self-im­posed lockdown.

As Vaughn par­ents try to keep their kids on track at home in terms of stim­u­la­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and struc­ture, an ef­fort is un­der­way to help the need­i­est of house­holds, led by local school coun­cil chair­woman Cindy Ok with the aid of school district staff, com­mu­nity elected lead­ers and other vol­un­teers.

From her home, Ok is or­ga­niz­ing the col­lec­tion and de­liv­ery of do­nated food, clean­ing sup­plies and other items to fam­i­lies af­fected by the nearly twoweek quar­an­tine. Her Go­FundMe cam­paign had raised about $15,000 by Friday. But Ok said she is wor­ried that those ef­forts aren’t enough and that some par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble fam­i­lies are go­ing with­out as­sis­tance.

“There are a num­ber of our fam­i­lies that we still haven’t reached,” said Ok, who has two daugh­ters with dis­abil­i­ties, in­clud­ing a 20-year-old with autism who at­tends Vaughn. “They don’t have in­ter­net or their phone num­bers are dis­con­nected or they’re not an­swer­ing.

“This is re­ally tough on our fam­i­lies,” she added. “Many are sin­gle moth­ers who won’t be able to re­turn to their jobs un­til their chil­dren are cleared.”

Seventy-five per­cent of the Vaughn stu­dent pop­u­la­tion qual­i­fies for a free or re­duced-price lunch and more than 30% are bilin­gual, ac­cord­ing to district statis­tics.

So far, none of the stu­dents, fac­ulty or other staff mem­bers be­sides the aide has tested pos­i­tive, ac­cord­ing to city pub­lic health of­fi­cials. Mur­phy’s son also was cleared, though the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion has es­ti­mated that symp­toms can arise up to 14 days af­ter po­ten­tial ex­po­sure.

The virus has caused height­ened and wide­spread aware­ness of vig­i­lant hy­giene prac­tices, but par­ents of chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties — es­pe­cially those with weak­ened im­mune sys­tems — say the po­ten­tial ef­fect of germs on their kids is al­ways on their minds.

“A lot of moms are say­ing, ‘Of course it had to be our school,’ ” said Erin Folan, whose daugh­ter Emma, 20, is a stu­dent. “We worry about sit­u­a­tions like this on a daily ba­sis. It is an­other bump in the road for us, but thank­fully no one is sick yet.”

Par­ents say they are re­quired to check their child’s tem­per­a­ture twice a day with a ther­mome­ter, then record re­sults in an emailed form from the Chicago De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health.

Be­sides ob­vi­ous health and fi­nan­cial con­cerns, many par­ents agreed the change in rou­tine for a young adult with dis­abil­i­ties can make an al­ready stress­ful sit­u­a­tion more dif­fi­cult. They are try­ing to fill the days with struc­ture and ac­tiv­ity through books, puz­zles, movies, video and board games, art projects and FaceTime chats with class­mates, teach­ers and rel­a­tives.

Folan, who has missed about a week of work so far, said she is lucky to have a lot of sup­port. Still, af­ter home mani-pedi treat­ments and karaoke per­for­mances, she said she was run­ning out of ways to en­ter­tain her daugh­ter.

An only child, Emma has men­tal, be­hav­ioral and mod­er­ate learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties. She is high func­tion­ing, Folan said, and loves sports, drama and horse­back rid­ing. But Folan said her lov­ing daugh­ter, with con­stant seizure ac­tiv­ity in her brain, lacks im­pulse con­trol and can grow up­set eas­ily.

Her daugh­ter had long been packed for this week­end’s Spe­cial Olympics Illi­nois State Bas­ket­ball Cham­pi­onships, which are now can­celed.

“They don’t have many op­por­tu­ni­ties for sleep­overs and spe­cial out­ings with their friends,” Folan said. “It’s very hard for them to un­der­stand. To pull ev­ery­thing away from her re­ally quickly is very dif­fi­cult.”

Sev­eral Vaughn par­ents said they learned of the coro­n­avirus threat at the school shortly af­ter 6 p.m.

March 6 through a robo­call and sev­eral sub­se­quent emails from the school’s prin­ci­pal, CPS and city pub­lic health of­fi­cials.

But at least one par­ent, Noemi Gomez, said she waited days to get answers.

Gomez said her 18-yearold daugh­ter, who is de­vel­op­men­tally de­layed and has se­vere anx­i­ety, trans­ferred to Vaughn in January. She said her daugh­ter’s name was mis­tak­enly omit­ted when CPS pro­vided city health of­fi­cials with a stu­dent ros­ter.

“How can they miss my daugh­ter?” Gomez said. “I feel so sick. I feel sad. I al­most want to cry.”

Gomez said her daugh­ter has had a cough and a fever, at one point reach­ing 102.07 de­grees. The fever broke with over-the-counter med­i­ca­tion. Still, Gomez said no pub­lic health or school district of­fi­cial im­me­di­ately re­sponded to her re­quests for test­ing, mon­i­tor­ing and quar­an­tine advice.

The Chicago mother said she has di­a­betes and de­vel­oped a cough as well. She has two other sons, ages 21 and 5. Fol­low­ing a doc­tor’s advice, Gomez said she and her two youngest chil­dren are in self-quar­an­tine at home.

City pub­lic health of­fi­cials con­firmed they did not ini­tially re­ceive the teen’s name from the district.

CPS of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged the er­ror. In­di­vid­ual CPS schools and the district’s cen­tral of­fice of­ten have dif­fer­ent stu­dent lists, with the schools hav­ing the most up-to-date in­for­ma­tion on stu­dent pop­u­la­tion.

“This is an im­por­tant les­son learned, and as we move for­ward we will take ad­di­tional steps to cross ref­er­ence lists of stu­dents,” CPS spokes­woman Emily Bolton said. “We also want to stress that it is crit­i­cally im­por­tant for all fam­i­lies to up­date their emer­gency con­tact in­for­ma­tion so we can get in touch in the event of an emer­gency.”

Gomez said she has since been in touch with health of­fi­cials, who are as­sist­ing her with test­ing options.

“We pray,” she said. “We pray a lot.”

The ad­vo­cacy group Raise Your Hand for Illi­nois Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion also has brought up com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­cerns, ac­cus­ing both CPS and city health of­fi­cials of not re­spond­ing prop­erly to some ques­tions, such as why sib­lings of Vaughn stu­dents who at­tend other schools aren’t be­ing asked to stay home.

CPS of­fi­cials said their ef­forts have in­cluded a deep clean­ing of the school, paid leave for quar­an­tined staff, free boxes of food and sup­plies for pickup and de­liv­ery, on­line learn­ing lessons, and a staffed hot­line and spe­cial email ad­dress for fam­i­lies that need as­sis­tance. The Greater Chicago Food De­pos­i­tory as­sisted CPS with pro­vid­ing 500 boxes of food.

On Friday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker an­nounced the clo­sure of all pub­lic schools statewide from Tues­day un­til at least March 30. Be­fore the gov­er­nor’s or­der, more than 100 of the state’s roughly 850 school dis­tricts had al­ready de­cided to call off classes for some pe­riod of time, af­fect­ing nearly 300,000 stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to the Illi­nois State Board of Ed­u­ca­tion.

For Vaughn par­ent Sheila Har­ris, whose three chil­dren in­clude twin 21-yearold sons, one of whom has a rare neu­rode­vel­op­men­tal disor­der, the loss of in­come due to missed work has been es­pe­cially stress­ful.

“I’m hop­ing I can go back to work (be­fore two weeks), but I’m play­ing it by ear,” said Har­ris, who is un­sure if she en­tered the school dur­ing the pe­riod of con­cern but has re­mained home as a pre­cau­tion. “It could be worse. We’re fine right now, so that’s a bless­ing.”

The sit­u­a­tion at Vaughn has brought an out­pour­ing of com­mu­nity sup­port. Be­sides the do­nated money, dozens of com­mu­nity mem­bers, busi­nesses and char­i­ties such as Lake­view Pantry have do­nated dry foods, clean­ing sup­plies, toi­letries and ed­u­ca­tional games.

At state Rep. Lind­sey La­Pointe’s district of­fice, nearly three dozen bags of do­na­tions have been col­lected so far. Vol­un­teers have been drop­ping off items out­side the homes of quar­an­tined fam­i­lies for days.

“Peo­ple have re­ally stepped up, which is not ab­nor­mal on the Far North­west Side of Chicago,” said La­Pointe, a Chicago Demo­crat. “Peo­ple re­ally chip in to make their com­mu­ni­ties bet­ter.”

Ok, the LSC chair­woman spear­head­ing many of the ef­forts, said other local lead­ers such as Chicago Ald. Ni­cholas Sposato and mem­bers of the Chicago Teach­ers Union have been col­lect­ing and de­liv­er­ing do­na­tions. She said a bilin­gual teacher, Emily Hecht, has per­son­ally reached out to nearly 100 Span­ish-speak­ing fam­i­lies to con­nect them with re­sources, even digging into her own pocket for emer­gen­cies.

For Bar­bara Mur­phy and her husband, Kevin, the new health threat brought back flash­backs of an ear­lier viral out­break that nearly killed their son. Three years ago, John was hos­pi­tal­ized af­ter con­tract­ing the H1N1 virus and the flu. He fought his way back from grave ill­ness, but his lungs were fur­ther dam­aged, re­quir­ing him to use sup­ple­men­tal oxy­gen as he breathes.

Forty-eight hours af­ter he was tested for the new coro­n­avirus, Bar­bara Mur­phy said, she re­ceived the re­sults that he was neg­a­tive. Echo­ing Folan and other par­ents, she said that if there’s any up­side to all this, it’s that the pub­lic is now more aware of the med­i­cally frag­ile young adults and el­derly peo­ple in the com­mu­nity who “need you to wash your hands” to re­main healthy.

“We al­ways say John was born with one foot in the door­way to heaven,” his mother said. “Our fear is real for us. His his­tory is real.”

“A lot of moms are say­ing, ‘Of course it had to be our school.’ We worry about sit­u­a­tions like this on a daily ba­sis. It is an­other bump in the road for us, but thank­fully no one is sick yet.” — Erin Folan, whose daugh­ter Emma, 20, is a stu­dent at Vaughn Oc­cu­pa­tional High School

BRIAN CASSELLA/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Bar­bara Mur­phy speaks Wed­nes­day with her son John, 15, a quar­an­tined Vaughn Oc­cu­pa­tional High School stu­dent who does not have symp­toms of the coro­n­avirus, at home.

BRIAN CASSELLA/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE PHO­TOS

Emma, a Spe­cial Olympics ath­lete, talks to a friend on the phone while sit­ting out­side her home on Wed­nes­day. Emma, 20, is also a quar­an­tined Vaughn Oc­cu­pa­tional High School stu­dent who does not have symp­toms of the coro­n­avirus.

Bill Lit­tle de­liv­ers food to Norma Guadalupe Tafolla. Her daugh­ter, a stu­dent at Vaughn Oc­cu­pa­tional High School who does not have coro­n­avirus symp­toms, was quar­an­tined.

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