As CPS Students Return To Class, Some Principals Worry They Won’t Have Enough Staff

With elementary students returning for in-person classes, one principal said, “It’s not gonna work — we’ve got a foundation of toothpicks.”

WBEZ
Dawes Elementary School on the first day back for pre-K students on Jan. 11, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
Dawes Elementary School on the first day back for pre-K students on Jan. 11, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As CPS Students Return To Class, Some Principals Worry They Won’t Have Enough Staff

With elementary students returning for in-person classes, one principal said, “It’s not gonna work — we’ve got a foundation of toothpicks.”

Some Chicago Public Schools principals welcoming elementary students back for in-person classes for the first time on Monday say they are struggling to make sure children will have adult supervision at all times.

They say the staffing plans are so fragile that if one staff member fails to show up, they don’t know what they will do.

“It’s not gonna work — we’ve got a foundation of toothpicks, and on top of that is built a house of cards, like it’s all just going to come apart here,” one principal told WBEZ. Several principals asked not to be named for fear of the repercussions of speaking publicly.

CPS CEO Janice Jackson acknowledged Monday that some schools are facing staffing difficulties, but said none of them are so significant that they are not ready to open. Jackson said she sent central office staff out to schools to fill some of the holes until the situation can be stabilized.

About 61,000 preschool through eighth grade students, as well as some special education high school students, are returning for in-person learning this month. Preschoolers and special education students started last month. On Monday, kindergarten through fifth grade students return followed next week by sixth through eighth graders.

Only 30% of all preschool and elementary school students have opted to return to for a mix of in-person and remote learning. The rest will remain fully remote.

The return to in-person learning comes after a bitter fight over the reopening agreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and the school district. School district officials insisted that students be given the option to return to school as attendance in virtual classes dropped and failing grades increased.

One key conflict was a union demand that many staff be allowed to continue working from home. But the school district said most were needed for in-person learning to be successful.

Seven principals and assistant principals said this isn’t fully resolved and the school district is moving forward with a shaky plan. Their schools range from a South Side magnet school to a North Side neighborhood school.

The principals said they worry that what they are providing students will sour their relationships with parents, who are disappointed and blame them. Many classrooms are being staffed by newly-hired staff who have no background in education, while children will be sitting at desks logged into remote classes, just as they would at home.

The principals, who were gathered by the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, argue that if the school district had included principals, they could have helped the school district come up with a better plan. A survey done in early February by the association found that 75% of about 300 respondents felt they did not have enough staff to bring students back into schools. On average, the principals said they needed seven additional teachers and five paraprofessionals to make in-person school work, according to the survey.

Data released Monday night shows why so many principals are grappling with staffing problems. The school district has granted 5,800 staff, including 3,750 teachers, accommodations to work from home. This is 28% of all staff and 35% of all teachers due back. Another 645 took an unpaid leave of absence that protects their positions.

While these staff are doing their jobs remotely, the principals need someone to supervise their students who are in-person. The principals must replace those on leave until they return in mid-April.

As part of the reopening agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, the school district agreed to let teachers and other staff work from home 14 days after they first got vaccinated. If they wanted to stay home until they had the second shot, they would have to take an unpaid, but protected leave. Staff with certain medical conditions or who were the primary caregivers of people who were medically fragile were allowed to work from home. In addition, a smaller number of staff who have a medically fragile household member or a child care issue could also apply to work from home or a leave.

The school district knew there were going to be some staffing holes and said it would hire 1,000 additional substitutes and gave principals another 1,000 the extra positions, which pay $15-an-hour. On Monday night, the school district said it has hired 530 substitutes and 709 extra staff so far.

Also, prior to the pandemic, the school district had a substitute teacher shortage, with many schools not getting coverage half the time they requested it. The principals say that has been exacerbated by the pandemic and many substitutes insist on teaching remotely, which does not help if you need an adult in a building.

“Everything is trial and error this week,” said the principal of a school on the Near North Side. “So we’ve got a plan for lunch and recess supervision. But it assumes everything goes perfectly, like no one fails a health screener, no one calls in sick. Everything has to be perfect for us to have a good day and there’s no good backup plan.”

He added that last year “even on a good day, we did not get subs or paraprofessional support and so we don’t expect it this year as it is a more dire situation.”

One principal at a South Side elementary school that serves all Black, all low-income students said she does not have someone to cover the second grade class on Monday. This is after she has already put the counselor, the new hires and others into classrooms, even though it’s prohibited by their contract.

“So we’re short,” she said.

The principals said they are doing things like combining grades just so the students will have an adult in the room with them. They are hoping headphones will help so that different remote classes going on at once in one room doesn’t distract the students.

The principal from the South Side school said she is worried about having grievances filed against her, which could cost her school money, but she said she doesn’t have a choice. She’s also not providing recess.

“It is very developmentally inappropriate for children,” she said. “But we can’t afford it. We can’t monitor it and we have to keep them safe.”

An assistant principal from a North Side school said that almost 80% of her teachers are staying remote, as are more than 90% of her teaching assistants. She said many parents withdrew their students from in-person learning once they realized that most students will be sitting in a classroom watching their laptop.

“So I think a lot of this has strained our relationship with our parents because we’re receiving tons of calls with them being confused,” she said. She said many of them are worried about whether the new staff are OK to be in the classroom with students. She said they explain that the staff can supervise, but are not qualified to teach. At her school, many of the new hires are parents who only speak Spanish and may not be able to help students with technology.

The principals said they are worried not only about making sure all the in-person students are taken care of, but also that remote students do not lose out. Most teachers will be trying to teach in-person and remote students simultaneously.

A principal said under the hybrid model, both his in-person and remote middle school students will lose 10 minutes per class of instructional time. That is three weeks by the end of the year, he said.

The principal from the South Side magnet school is worried that if parents see that the quality of instruction decreases, it would be bad for her.

“They are not going to take out their frustration on the CEO or on the mayor, we are the ones that are going to bear the brunt of what doesn’t go right,” the principal said. She said she has to answer questions from parents about when they will find people to fill holes and she also must work to make teachers and staff happy, giving them extra time to prepare and take breaks.

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