For the first time in more than a year, thousands of Chicago public high school students returned to classrooms Monday morning, some facing long lines to get in, others facing freshly scrubbed but empty hallways, and all of them unsure what lies ahead for the final two months of school.
At Curie Metro High School on the Southwest Side, as 7:30 a.m. approached, students snaked outside of two doors waiting to get their temperature checked and to make their health screeners were filled out.
Many said they decided to come back to escape distractions at home, and for some, to boost their grades. Luz Jacome said she had been mostly an A student, but now in her sophomore year, her grades have dropped to mostly Ds.
“It was very challenging online, having to do seven to eight hours online and then two or three hours of homework,” Luz said. “It was way too much.”
She said she’s hoping that being in school will give her a chance to focus and ask teachers questions. But most of her friends are not coming back in person. She said that makes her sad.
Curie, like many schools, only expects about 27% of students back to school in the building as classes resume. That’s nearly 800 students.
Overall, about 36% of all high schoolers, or 26,000 students, are expected to return to in-person classes, most for two day a week. Younger students in Chicago Public Schools have been back for more than a month. On Monday, the school district expected the number of elementary and preschool students to almost double, from 49,000 to more than 95,000.
But the big news on Monday is the return of high schoolers for the first time since March 2020. That opening was assured Sunday when the Chicago Teachers Union announced that a reopening agreement reached with the school district was ratified by the membership with 83% of the vote.
“A lot of kids were not doing well when they weren’t in school, which is why I’m so happy. I think I’m the happiest I’ve been in a log time today,” CPS CEO said during a visit to Walter Payton College Prep Monday afternoon.
Most other school districts in Illinois already are offering some in-person learning. School district leaders pointed out in an email to parents that every grade level in Chicago now has the option to attend.
“This milestone has been more than a year in the making and is truly a cause for celebration,” the email said.
When asked what about CPS’ plan for the fall, Jackson said “we’re not there yet.” She went on to say that “we’re going to celebrate what happened today, we got our kids back in school … and it is one step along the long process that will end with all of our kids having access to in-person instruction, five days a week.”
In the email to parents, district leaders also thanked the teachers union for making the high school start possible without a delay. Last week, they worked together to land the agreement over high school reopening.
With most teachers now fully vaccinated, the negotiations were far less contentious than over the return of elementary students. But one of the biggest fights was over the union demand for a vaccination program for students. Ultimately, the city and school district agreed to give registration information and set aside appointments for students 16 and older from communities hard hit by COVID-19.
The rest of the reopening agreement either had to do with the logistics of opening high schools or accommodating staff who weren’t ready to return to school buildings. The union was able to secure accommodations to work from home or unpaid leaves for teachers and other staff who have child care issues, are not fully vaccinated for medical or religious reasons or who live with someone not fully vaccinated.
For some students, returning to to classrooms was an effort to be able to focus on their schoolwork. Curie junior Martha Lara said she wanted escape her house, which is full of her four younger siblings. Her mother is there, but she is also working from home.
“It is really hard for me to stay focused and pay attention in class when I have so many other responsibilities,” she said. She said the teachers have tried to be flexible, but having to take a break to put her baby brother to sleep throws her off.
Senior Daniella Robles also is coming back to school in hopes of getting back on track. She is a senior, but is in danger of not graduating.
“I was struggling with school so I thought maybe in person would be better for me. I was struggling with staying focused.” Daniella said. At home, there’s just so much else to do — TV, the phone, her cat.
A small group of Curie seniors stood together and chatted before school. They said they were glad to see each other and to finish off their senior year in the building. Greg Cook said his grades are pretty good and that, even online, he wanted to keep his teachers happy.
Greg said he was disappointed when he thought he may never step foot in the school again and miss graduation and prom. Now, he said it looks like there might be a graduation and even maybe a prom, though he’s yet to get a tux.
When students across the city entered high school buildings on Monday, many were relatively empty — and not just because of pandemic precautions that limit the number of students in the schools.
Among the 85 high schools run by the district, just eight schools are expecting more than half their students to return, according to CPS data released Friday. Four of them are very small, with less than 200 students total. The other four are selective enrollment or magnet schools.
Lane is one of them. On Friday, Avery Harris, 17, a senior at Lane Tech, said he was looking forward to reconnecting with his friends. He got his second vaccination last week.
He said he knows he won’t be experiencing pep rallies or prom but he hopes his school figures out ways to make these last few months as meaningful as possible.
“COVID is always going to be at the back of my mind,” Avery said. “It’s something that’s so present that I am a little concerned about it.”
But he said the school seems to be taking proper precautions.
Overall, 19% of high school students did not fill out the form alerting the school district whether they planned to return for in-person classes. The school district says these students must continue to learn remotely full time. In 16 high schools, a greater number of students failed to fill out the form than said they would return.
Once in-person, students can change their mind and go all remote, but they can’t do it the other way around.