Three second grader boys were giddy as they stood outside National Teachers Academy Monday morning, waiting for their temperature to be checked before they went into the elementary school.
One of the boys said he was nervous, “It is my first day as a second grader and I don’t know what will happen cause we haven’t been in school for a very long time.”
“Almost one year,” said his friend, piping in.
The boys said when schools were first closed due the virus they were curious and sort of happy. Doing school from home sounded like fun, they said. They now know the perils of learning from home, which they say are a lot of distraction and missing their pals.
But one of them noted he’s still sad because so many of his friends were not coming for in-person learning two days a week. At NTA, only about 40% of students have opted into in-person learning. That is a bit higher than the rest of the school district, where only one-third are returning. The rest of the students remain fully remote.
Still, Chicago Public Schools celebrated on Monday as it opened its school buildings to the largest group of students since the shutdown last March. Some 37,000 elementary students were due back on Monday, joining up to 5,000 preschoolers and special education students who have already begun. Up to 18,500 sixth through eighth graders are due back March 8.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, school district officials and many parents and students greeted the day with excitement. Lightfoot said she spotted children skipping ahead of their parents on their way to a North Side school Monday morning.
“That really got me going,” Lightfoot said. Once she made it to Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, she said the level of enthusiasm among the kindergarten students was “off the charts … This is what we fought for.”
CPS CEO Janice Jackson said she expects that once parents see how smoothly in-person goes, more families will opt-in to start in mid-April.
“I fully anticipate a huge jump in the number of parents who opt in,” Jackson said. “But again, the importance is that there’s an option if people aren’t comfortable, by all means they should continue with remote.”
Jackson also said she is confident all schools are ready to open. She pointed to a school district dashboard that shows which schools have enough masks, air purifiers and additional custodians. All the schools have met the criteria, according to the district.
Yet some principals have complained they are short needed staff to supervise classrooms. On Monday evening, the school district said it had given accommodations to work from home to 5,800 staff, including 3,750 teachers. This is 28% of all staff and 35% of all teachers due back. Another 645 took an unpaid leave of absence.
The school district knew there would be staffing holes and set about hiring 1,000 new substitutes and another 1,000 part-time hourly employees. But so far, it has only hired about 530 substitutes and 709 part-time staffers.
Jackson said that she knows that some staffing might be “not ideal” but that the school district will work through the challenges.
“It is the first day of school and you are always going to have challenges,” she said.
Lightfoot also took a moment to address parents specifically. She said that women in particular have had to take on homeschooling children and she knows it has been hard.
“We do hear you and we will continue to listen and make sure that your voices are part of this equation,” she said. “This isn’t a struggle between two sides. This is a struggle for the fate of our children.”
On Monday, some parents are holding a “sick out” to protest the lack of parental involvement in re-opening plans.
School district officials said they have spent $100 million in order to make classes safe for students. They have hired more custodians, extra staff to supervise students and to screen students when coming in and bought masks, sanitizers and cleaning supplies.
Through the school system, the city is also offering vaccines to teachers and staff. On Monday, Lightfoot said the school system has already offered them to 18,000 CPS employees.
These efforts are enough for some families, including Karen Bui and her seven-year-old daughter, Petra Ahmed. It is hard to say who was more excited about going to school Monday, Bui or Ahmed.
“We are really happy,” said Bui, whose daughter goes to Hawthorne Scholastic Academy in Lake View on the North Side. “It is long overdue.”
Bui has watched her little girl become less and less enthusiastic over the last six months of remote learning. Recently, she had to do an assignment and refused to even color in the pictures.
“I had to let it go because what am I going to do? Turn my house into a battleground over every single assignment,” Bui said. “I know she is capable of so much more, but she’s just not engaged.”
CPS officials are hoping more families will start to see the benefits of in-person learning and return in April. Last week, at the board of education meeting, officials reported that attendance has fallen since last year, especially in high school, and that failing grades are also up.
The number of students expected to return has dropped dramatically over the past two months, down 20% from 77,000 in December when parents were first asked, to 61,000 now. The biggest drop was among Latino students. The average percentage of returning students in schools in South Lawndale, Brighton Park and West Elston is about 15%, according to CPS data. These communities have been hit hard by COVID-19.
Also, though the numbers of white students returning decreased, they are still overrepresented. The four communities with the most students going back to in-person learning remain Norwood Park, Mount Greenwood, Forest Glen and Edison Park. In each of these communities, the average return percentage is above 60%.
Some parents pulled out in the midst of a bitter fight between the Chicago Teachers Union and the school district over reopening. Others have been turned off once they learned more about in-person learning.
CPS has not released information on how many teachers and staff received accommodations to work from home or unpaid leaves. But some principals say that so many staff will be remote that many students will be sitting at desks in schools with headphones glued to their laptops as if they were at home. One principal told WBEZ that once she held town hall meetings describing what in-person would be like, many parents withdrew their students from it.
Like many unions across the country, the CTU wanted the school district to put off in-person learning until teachers could get fully vaccinated. They also wanted a firm public health metric that would dictate when the schools would resort to remote learning, if there’s another surge of the virus.
But Lightfoot and Jackson, along with the head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, insisted that vaccinations were only one way to make teachers and staff safe. They noted that studies showed schools were not the source of significant spread. They also were reluctant to agree to a health metric because they believe schools are safe and don’t want to close again.
After several standoffs and strike threats, the union and school district finally landed an agreement. For most staff, it delayed the start until March, giving many time to at least get one shot of the vaccine. It also provided more staff accommodations to work from home.
It also established a level of COVID-19 spread in the community for returning to all remote learning but it is not as firm as the union wanted.