So Long, Summer. It’s Back To Class For Chicago Public Schools

Nearly all of CPS’ 340,000 students were due back in-person for the first time since March 2020 as questions circulate about the district’s readiness.

So Long, Summer. It’s Back To Class For Chicago Public Schools

Nearly all of CPS’ 340,000 students were due back in-person for the first time since March 2020 as questions circulate about the district’s readiness.

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Chicago Public Schools on Monday pulled off its first full day of in-person learning in 17 months for nearly all its expected 340,000 students. It was a day full of excitement and jitters as nervous students and parents worried whether the school district could keep everyone safe.

“I am happy because the school is open and I know my grandbaby will enjoy going back,” Janet Thompson said as she dropped off her granddaughter at Burke Elementary in Washington Park on the South Side. “I hope everything will be OK.” Nearby, safe passage worker Harold Daniels greeted visitors with “First day, happy day.”

Meanwhile, at National Teachers Academy, an elementary school in the South Loop, many parents said social distancing in classrooms will be impossible to maintain.

“It’s going to be really hard to keep up with the [safety] protocols,” said Latisha Huff, who has a 12-year-old at the school. “And a lot of kids, they’re not gonna want to wear their masks. They’re gonna take it off. They’re not going to be able to stop touching each other.”

Many students were hugging their friends and were anxious to get to class. Nine-year-old Jalah Lane was more ambivalent. She said it’s hard giving up some things about remote learning: “I’ll miss being able to wake up and just not getting ready for school and being in my pajamas.”

Before class began Monday morning, a dad outside National Teachers Academy, an elementary school in the South Loop, hugged his daughter, Zara, who is in preschool, as his first grader Amara and their mom stood by. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Officials in Chicago and at the state and national level have all argued strongly in favor of a return to full-time in-person, saying it’s best for students both academically and for their social and emotional well-being. But with CPS opening in the midst of a COVID-19 surge, questions are circulating about the school district’s readiness.

This weekend, 2,100 parents received emails from the district telling them their children’s bus ride was canceled because of a lack of drivers. The school district provides buses to some special education students and to elementary school students attending magnet and gifted schools.

And, in an unprecedented sign of how dire the situation is, CPS is offering parents $1,000 up front and $500 a month to get their children to school.

Busing in the midst of a severe labor shortage is just one of the many pandemic-related challenges the school system is facing.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot visits Ombudsman Chicago South, an alternative high school, Monday morning on the first day of classes. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Still, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials insist the best place for children to be is in schools learning with peers and teachers. They say that all but medically fragile students must return and have offered no option for parents who might be scared to send their children. The Illinois State Board of Education this spring said all children should return to school in person with limited exceptions, though under the school code school districts have the discretion to provide a remote option to individual students based on learning needs.

Lightfoot, who visited three school Monday morning, said that she saw “pure joy” as students streamed into schools. “I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing student’s eyes light up with excitement as they reunite with their friends and favorite teachers, and show off their awesome back-to-school outfits and backpacks,” she said during a stop at Ombudsman Chicago South, an alternative high school.

The mayor said the school district has spent more than $100 million on safety measures to help limit the spread of COVID-19. But she said that the district must prove itself to nervous parents. “Every single day, we’ve got to demonstrate to parents and students that the schools are safe by the protocols that are in place,” she said, noting that getting vaccinating is the only way to really stop the spread of COVID-19.

Students heading home after the first day of classes at Lane Tech College Prep on Chicago’s North Side. Susie An / WBEZ

By day’s end on Monday, some students shared news of a pretty typical first day. Friends Jazaye, Jelly and Anayah were all smiles as they walked off campus at Lane Tech College Prep on the North Side, masks still around their chins.

“[The first day] was pretty smooth,” said Jazaye, 17. “The only thing that was an issue was the crowded hallways because there are so many of us. So I think that’s what got under my skin the most.” 

Students head into Burke Elementary
Students head into Burke Elementary in the Washington Park neighborhood for Chicago Public Schools’ first day. Sarah Karp / WBEZ
The big test for school district officials is whether they can offer up a school year that is not defined by disruption. 

The district put out an opening plan last week that lays out how it expects to operate. To start, everyone, vaccinated or not, must wear masks inside unless they are eating or drinking. Students are supposed to be kept three feet apart as much as possible. But in some classes, teachers are already reporting that desk placement is difficult.

All teachers and staff must be vaccinated by Oct. 15, but by June most were already vaccinated. High schools in particular will be trying to convince students to be vaccinated. A WBEZ analysis shows that, as of early August, vaccination rates of eligible 12- to 17-year-old varied widely from 25% in some poor communities of color to more than 90% in more affluent, more white neighborhoods.

Interim Chief Education Officer Maurice Swinney noted the vaccine is pretty accessible, but that schools need to work on the “hearts and minds of students.”

Getting students vaccinated is one key to having a smooth school year.

Some parents also want see the school district to mandate COVID-19 testing for all students. They say that finding positive, asymptomatic cases will limit the spread. Instead, the school district is offering weekly voluntary testing to all students. Experts say surveillance testing is helpful but masking and vaccination are most important.

CPS’ fall opening plan includes many changes since the spring, including who must quarantine if exposed to a positive case. With vaccinations just getting underway last school year, students were kept in groups called pods and entire pods were told to stay home for 14 days if exposed.

But this year, students will be traveling through their day as normal, going into different classrooms. The school district now is only requiring close contacts of infected students to quarantine and only those who are unvaccinated, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

At this time, the school district says students quarantined at home will get online instruction 25% of the school day and also will be given independent work to do.

But how exactly this will work is still being negotiated with the Chicago Teachers Union. The union and the school district continue to negotiate a reopening agreement. The union is frustrated that the school district is rolling back some of the safety measures in place last year, a time when a much smaller group of students were in schools and before the delta variant emerged.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said he does not think the school district is ready for the year to start. However, unlike previous contentious moments, the union has not threatened a walkout or work stoppage. Yet, leaders have warned that if COVID-19 cases get out of hand, they will take action.

Amanda Martin, a fifth grade teacher at National Teachers Academy, tries to round up her students as a girl gets her mask adjusted nearby. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Parents on Monday said they were glad restrictions are in place, with some worrying there aren’t enough and others also concerned about how all the limitations will affect their children.

Dianna Garcia was sending her small 7-year-old son, who has some health problems, and her 10-year-old daughter to Burke, but she felt a lot of trepidation. “I don’t want them to go due to COVID. … I am [feeling] kind of risky about that right now.”

But as much as she feared them going into school, she also worried about how all the restrictions would affect them.

“I am just hoping they can enjoy their education the same way we did growing up,” Garcia said. “I don’t want them to be too much where they are just boxed in. I want them to get an education, learn what they are supposed to, even with COVID.”

Sarah Karp reports on education for WBEZ. Follow her @sskedreporter and @WBEZeducation.

Reporters Anna Savchenko and Susie An contributed to this story. Follow them @annasavchenkoo and @soosieon.