Chicago schools begin with early start date as CEO predicts the ‘strongest year ever’

As classes resume, CPS points to extra resources and an early start as reasons for optimism while challenges like COVID and staff shortages loom.

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Freddie Taylor, a Pickard Elementary student in kindergarten, hugs his mom Rockia Taylor before he starts his first day of Chicago Public Schools on Monday Aug. 22, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
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Freddie Taylor, a Pickard Elementary student in kindergarten, hugs his mom Rockia Taylor before he starts his first day of Chicago Public Schools on Monday Aug. 22, 2022. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago schools begin with early start date as CEO predicts the ‘strongest year ever’

As classes resume, CPS points to extra resources and an early start as reasons for optimism while challenges like COVID and staff shortages loom.

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Pedro Martinez rang the bell to start one of the school district’s earliest academic years ever.

At Falconer Elementary in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side, a few parents didn’t like school starting at this point in August. School usually starts after Labor Day. But at Pickard Elementary in Pilsen, Areli Martinez, said it was time for her two sons, 6 and 11, to return to school.

“I think it’s good so they don’t forget what they learned from last year,” she said. “For me, it was better for them to go back to school.”

Leeanie Revera is starting 8th grade. She was nervous Monday morning, but excited to learn new things. She’s mostly just looking for a normal school year with some joy.

“I’m really hoping for joyful teachers that are really happy and have a great day every single morning,” Leeanie said.

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Students at Pickard Elementary in Chicago line up to start their first day of school. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

In the lead up to Monday’s first day, Martinez has been promising a year of recovery from the pandemic’s devastating effects on achievement and emotional well-being following a year marked by disruption and struggle.

Martinez pointed to a number of reasons for optimism. The early start date makes way for a better schedule for students. Staff are enthusiastic and ready for students, Martinez said. And he has put extra resources in schools to catch students up academically and to support their social emotional needs.

“This school year will be the strongest year ever,” Martinez promised at a recent talk, noting the district ended last year on a high note.

But a lot could still upend the school year.

To start: Will students show up on Monday? Some worry parents will reject the early start date because of late August vacations, while others might not realize their children are expected at school. The first day of school sets the tone for the school year and large numbers of absences could spell trouble.

There’s a nationwide teacher shortage that could leave schools without critical staff and students without needed support. A lack of bus drivers could mean another year of frustration for families whose children depend on transportation. In addition, COVID-19 could again wreak havoc, leading to more disruptions to learning. According to new vaccination data posted by CPS on Friday, just 51% of all student are fully vaccinated, down from 54% in June.

Teacher and staff shortages could undermine recovery

Martinez said he is confident students will be supported because this year’s budget, passed in June, includes 1,000 additional staff positions. Many are “interventionists,” or teachers without classrooms, who are “freed up to support children that need extra help,” Martinez said.

Each 512 district-run school is supposed to have one interventionist. Martinez also promised enough staff to ensure no classes were too large or had multiple grades in one room.

CPS officials stress that more teachers are on the rolls this year than last, but in the midst of a nationwide teacher shortage, finding people for all these new positions has been a struggle. In a statement, CPS officials said they “anticipate an uptick in our vacancy rate” partly because of the additional positions.

The school district is estimating between 4% and 5% of positions might not be filled, up from 3.5% last year, according to CPS.

The school district has not yet said how many schools have been unable to hire interventionists or teachers to lower class sizes.

Students in special education might feel the teacher shortage the most. As is the case in most years, the vacancy rate for special education teachers is higher than the rate for general education teachers.

CPS said it is investing in long-term solutions to attract more teachers, including a program called Teach Chicago Tomorrow, which helps support CPS students committed to becoming a Chicago Public Schools teacher after graduating from college.

At Falconer, Principal James Cosme told Lightfoot that he been preparing for the first day of school since “the last day of last year.”

He said his focus has been on improving the school’s social emotional learning program “to help students be more comfortable being back, and to help the parents to more comfortable being back.”

Cosme said that as students returned from learning at home for more than a year, many schools found challenging behavior among some students. Cosme also thanked Martinez for providing “everything the school needs.” Like many schools in Belmont Cragin, Falconer lost about 70 students last year and saw a decrease in its per-pupil spending.

However, because the school district padded the school budgets with extra positions, it was not slated to lose teachers or staff.

Falconer also got a new playground, which Cosme is wonderful. “Now when out kids go out for recess and for gym they have a playground to play on. Just another way to get the kids back at the school and be comfortable.”

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Students gather before the first day of school at Pickard Elemenary. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Finding bus rides to school still a problem

Another hurdle for Martinez is getting students to school. The district said it is still short about 400 bus drivers to meet the transportation needs of the relatively few students who get bus service. Only some students in special education or homeless as well as students in magnet and selective enrollment who live from their school, are eligible to be bussed.

The district has routed some 15,700 students whose parents requested busing by late July, but is still working on establishing routes for those whose parents have recently requested routes. The district admits it could still take weeks to route all new requests for special education students. It assured parents absences will be excused.

Because of a national bus driver shortage, the Chicago Board of Education has instructed school district officials to prioritize special education and homeless students, who are legally mandated to get service. And parents of magnet and selective enrollment schools are being told they may not get a route. They are being offered free bus cards.

Also, some parents of special education students say they were told their children’s trips would be more than an hour one way. Martinez is acknowledging some students will have one-way trips that last more than an hour, but said it is only about 20% of all students that getting transportation.

Martinez is asking for some grace.

“I want families to know that the first two weeks are always hectic, so please just be patient with us,” he said recently. “The goal is to shorten those routes. The goal is to make sure everybody’s routed as soon as possible.”

Last year this issue blew up when parents were informed the weekend before the start of school that their children did not have bus routes. It took until the spring before school district officials said every student had transportation to school.

Martinez insisted that the school district is in a better position this school year. He said the pay rate for bus drivers increased so fewer drivers have left the district. The district also now has a fleet of vans and taxis available to transport students.

Thousands of students unvaccinated against COVID 19

New data released Friday shows that few students got fully vaccinated against COVID-19 over the summer. At district-run schools, the vaccination rate stands at about 51%.

Also, about 17,000 students who had one dose vaccine at the end of the summer did not get a second over the summer.

This puts a lot of children at risk of severe symptoms if their school faces a COVID-19 outbreak. The current variant is the most transmissible version yet.

School district officials worry about this and continue to urge parents to get their children vaccinated. CPS will continue four regional vaccine clinics open at schools throughout the year and will have some mobile clinics. In addition 22 health centers located in schools will offer vaccines.

Otherwise, the school district will try to balance keeping students in school as much as possible, while also preventing them from getting sick.

Areli Martinez, the mother at Pickard Elementary, said her kids are vaccinated and boosted. And even though they went out to museums and parks over the summer, they didn’t get sick. “So I feel a little safer with them coming to school without a mask.”

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Vincent Roman, left, and London Roman hang out before school begins Monday morning at Pickard Elementary in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. WBEZ

Most safety measures remain from last year, but this year close contacts of someone with COVID, even if they are unvaccinated, will no longer have to quarantine. They will only have to mask for 10 days. And the school district will provide rapid at-home tests for exposed students, which will be encouraged, but won’t be required. CPS made this decision after the CDC and state officials said they no longer recommend close contacts quarantine after exposure.

The school district also is hoping to prevent the spread of COVID through regular testing of students and staff, which many districts across the country are opting against. Teachers and staff are dismayed parents must fill out another consent form to re-enroll students in the program. CPS said the original consents signed last year were only good for six months, but that the new consent will remain in place until the student leaves the district.

The Chicago Teachers Union is on board with these safety measures, some of which leaders say they got the district to agree to. Elected union delegates will vote on a safety agreement with the district this week. A vote by the full union membership is likely in the weeks following.

That will hopefully clear the way for a far less disruptive year than last, when there was no safety agreement in place with CPS. Union staff refused to work in person during the Omicron surge in January, shutting schools down for five days.

Nereida Moreno contributed reporting to this story.

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