Chicago Teens Say They Want Their Voices Heard In Back-To-School Plans

WBEZ
Preschool students returned to in-person classes on Feb. 12, 2021 after Chicago Public Schools reached a reopening agreement with the teachers union. Now, the school district is looking to bring high schoolers back. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
Preschool students returned to in-person classes on Feb. 12, 2021 after Chicago Public Schools reached a reopening agreement with the teachers union. Now, the school district is looking to bring high schoolers back. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Teens Say They Want Their Voices Heard In Back-To-School Plans

Nearly a year into remote learning in Chicago Public Schools, senior Adrian Zamudio can barely remember the faces of some members of a club for minority students that he founded.

With the club meeting virtually, he said attendance has dropped off and it’s just not the same.

Adrian, a student at Jones College Prep, is ready to go back to school in person. His ideal would be to go back two days a week. But he knows teens don’t all have the same view. He and others want CPS officials to listen to high school students as they begin planning to bring high schoolers back before the end of this school year.

“[CPS officials] should have some students’ voices and I think that’s very important, especially since we are the ones undergoing this whole new process,” Adrian said.

Teens tell WBEZ they want the district to prioritize safety, emotional support and the quality of instruction — whether students learn in-person or online.

The pressure to return high schoolers is growing. On Monday, thousands of elementary school students will return for a hybrid mix of in-person and remote learning. Schools are opening after the district reached a reopening agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union following months of heated negotiations that almost ended in a strike.

Now, many people want high schoolers back too.

“Just the thought of us reaching the end of the school year with freshmen that didn’t step foot in their high school building, and with seniors that were not given an opportunity to be in the school that they are graduating from, it’s totally unacceptable,” said Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle at a board meeting on Wednesday.

District officials said they’ve been gathering input from principals and educators. They also said they are reaching out to Chicago Teachers Union officials to create a reopening plan. As part of the reopening deal reached with the union, CPS agreed to negotiate with CTU on resuming in-person classes for high schools.

They hope the process will go a lot more smoothly this time around.

“We are going to build on the good work that’s already been done,” said Kaitlyn Girard, labor relations officer with CPS. “The engagement with CTU has already kicked off as we mentioned”

They said some of the challenges with high schools are around their large size and creating safety pods when there is so much mobility as students change classes.

Attendance down, Fs up

At Jones, Adrian has noticed some of his classmates are having trouble staying motivated during remote learning. CPS officials worry about that as well. They said attendance numbers are lower than last year, especially among high school students. The number of students getting Fs and Ds is also up.

Under his ideal hybrid model of two days in school and three days remote, Adrian doesn’t want teachers to provide simultaneous instruction, as is planned for elementary schools. He fears it won’t be good for students if teachers are juggling remote and in-person learning at the same time.

Adrian also wants to see a return of one full day of independent learning that Jones had last fall. Adrian said students relied on that day “to catch up with work, to be able to feel that they weren’t overwhelmed by school.”

Other teens and parents said remote learning simply isn’t working.

“The benefits of having kids at school far outweigh the downside, which has been tremendous,” said Monica Lasky, a parent at Jones. “My main concern in terms of getting kids back to school is giving them opportunities for in-person interactions with their peers which is really like oxygen to teenagers.”

At the board of education meeting Wednesday several parents said they wanted a reopening timeline soon. Board of education members asked for it as well

But for every student who wants to return, there are others who want to remain remote full time, especially students living in neighborhoods hit hard by the pandemic.

“Recently I lost a whole bunch of family members since the COVID started,” said Jackie Guzman, a senior at Clemente High School in Humboldt Park. Jackie would rather miss out on events like prom and the school luncheon than risk catching the virus.

“It’s not a game. It’s not funny because at the end of the day this has killed so [many] people,” added Cam Velazquez, a junior at Clemente. He wants remote instruction to continue full-time.

Cam lives with his five siblings and mom on the Northwest Side. He said many of his family members already got the virus.

Instead of spending time and resources to bring high school students back, Cam said, teens need more social and emotional supports. But he likes the idea of a day to just catch up on school work.

“Because at home you know there is so much stuff going on,” Cam said. “Sometimes I have to skip class to cook dinner for my siblings and it’s hard because I’m at home and I need to help out my family needs because I could go into school.”

As Chicago Public Schools works on its reopening plan, it is moving to open three high school buildings as learning hubs for a small number of students from those schools who need extra help. The schools are Richards Career Academy, George Corliss High School and William Wells Community Academy.

“That idea is way better,” Cam said, adding that he would like Clemente to become a learning hub. “We can try to do this remote learning from home, but some of us don’t have the resources to continue it from home.”

Whether schools become learning hubs or welcome all students back, Cam and Adrian said safety should be taken seriously, more mental health support should be offered, and the adults should find a way to truly listen to what high school students have to say.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.