A handful of Chicago public schools opening their doors to students early next year are expecting only one child to show up, while others are anticipating more than 700 students, according to data released by the school district.
Most schools that are anticipating few students are in Black and Latino neighborhoods with high rates of COVID-19 infections or deaths. In addition, the schools serve high numbers of low-income students. Of the 156,000 students considered low-income that were offered in-person instruction, just 32% of them say they are coming.
The information comes less than two weeks before the first students will be in classrooms since buildings were shuttered in March. Teachers and principals say they are spending winter break worrying about how school will look when it goes back into session, especially in places where only a few students are in front of them and the majority are still at home.
“As weird as it is, we’ve created stability in the last four months. I have a routine and my students know the routine,” said one teacher at a mostly Black school in East Garfield Park who asked not to be named. “Now it feels like we may need to start over.”
Preschoolers and students in special education cluster programs are due back on Jan. 11, while elementary students are slated to return on Feb. 1. CPS hopes to bring some high schools back at a later date. Preschool and cluster students will attend five days a week. Elementary school students will be in-person two days a week and remote the other three.
Overall, the school district has said 37% of those eligible for in-person learning are anticipated to attend and acknowledged that, in a school district of mostly Black and Latino students, white students are overrepresented among those returning. All students who choose not to return will continue with remote learning.
Still, school district leaders have argued emphatically that offering schools in-person learning is a matter of equity. With 78,000 students returning starting next month, they say that amounts to more than the student body at the largest school district in the state after CPS. They also note that private schools and suburban schools with more affluent students have been offering in-person learning. Students in Chicago Public Schools should get that opportunity, they say.
Still, the school-level data reveals the dramatically different situations that schools will face when they reopen to students.
Many schools have no idea how many families really want their children to return to the classroom. At 27 elementary schools, more than half of the student families didn’t respond to the intent-to-return survey. All these schools serve mostly Black, mostly low-income students whose parents may not have known about or had access to the internet to complete the form. The school district has said that students whose families didn’t respond to the survey will be considered remote and won’t be able to attend in person until at least April. CPS data shows 16% of families overall didn’t respond to the survey.
There are three elementary schools — one in Little Village and one in Humboldt Park, serving mostly Latino students, and the other in South Deering on the Southeast Side, serving mostly Black students — that are only anticipating 20 students. Even though these are small schools of about 250 students, it is still less than 10% of their enrollment.
On the other hand, there are four schools expecting more than 700 students. Two of them are the schools with the highest percentage of white students in the city’s public school system. They are on the opposite ends of the city: Mount Greenwood Elementary on the far Southwest side and Ebinger Elementary on the far Northwest side.
The socioeconomic divide is even more pronounced than the racial or geographic divide. The CPS data shows that while 75% of students that Chicago Public Schools invited back are considered economically disadvantaged, only 64% of students who are actually returning are low-income. Many of the majority Black and Latino schools that are expecting more than half of their students are ones with more economically advantaged students.
The only students who can come back to high schools now are those in cluster programs, which are classrooms set aside for moderately to severely disabled students. Of the 46 high schools with cluster programs, four are expecting no students. Half are expecting fewer than a quarter of eligible students, with many having just a handful.
Some teachers and principals can look forward to focusing on full classes of students sitting in front of them. There has been a push in some communities, including on the Far Southwest Side, to get schools to reopen.
But those expecting few students say they are concerned that those who return don’t understand what they are walking into, and that students will have their year disrupted at a time they need stability.
According to CPS officials, principals will have discretion to configure their schools in the way it makes sense for students. But there are clear limits. CPS says principals can’t allow some teachers to work from home. Teachers and staff have been told they must report to school buildings unless they have been given an accommodation.
Several teachers and principals spoke to WBEZ on the condition that they remain anonymous. They say they are afraid that school district leaders will be angry if they criticize the return-to-school plan.
One 30-year-veteran said she has been told that seven of the 21 students in her class will be in person. She has spent all of her career in the mostly low-income, diverse school on the North Side. With most of her fourth graders at home, she said she will continue to instruct as though everyone is remote.
The students in her class will be expected to sit in front of their laptops with headphones on. She said she also expects they will be in their winter coats as she intends to keep the windows open to allow for good airflow.
“I don’t know how I will send them to the bathroom or how they will have snack time,” she said. “I really don’t know how this will look.”
Like many teachers, she’s “anxiety-ridden” about going back into her school. Her husband had a heart attack last year and she is afraid that she will expose him to COVID-19. She said she has applied for an accommodation to stay home, but she won’t know until mid-January. Data released on Tuesday shows that among the first round of staff that applied for an accommodation or a leave, 42% of them were approved.
Another principal said he also has instructed all teachers to continue focusing on remote teaching, even for in-person students.
A second-grade teacher at another school said she worries she will spend an inordinate amount of time focused on the three students that will be in her classroom. She has 27 total students.
“I would want to focus more on the remote kids because it’s also harder to learn remotely so they’re gonna need more of my focus and attention,” she said. “But the reality is, when children are in front of you, they are dependent on you for all of their needs, their physical needs, their emotional needs. There’s no one else to service them in those ways. They have to take precedent.”
Meanwhile, some teachers are expecting no students. At Washington High School, two teachers and seven paraprofessionals will be expected to go into the classroom, yet none of their students with special needs will be there.
One of those teachers, Maura Escherich, said she has been told by parents that they feel like their children are being experimented on, given that they would be the only high school students in person. Also, a lot of them are immuno-compromised, which makes their parents even more hesitant to send them into school.
“I have heard parents say, if the buildings are safe for our kids, then why aren’t they safe for all kids,” she said. “What makes our students different?”
“One parent said, ‘I don’t like remote learning, it is hard. I go to work. I drop my son at my sister’s house so he can do his e-learning. It’s not a great time,’” Escherich recounted. “But she’s like, `I love my son, and I couldn’t live with myself, if I sent him into school for my own convenience, and something happened to him.’”
Escherich said her students have gotten used to remote learning, and said she doesn’t understand the rationale of sending staff into schools without students.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have said that cluster students are among the most vulnerable and they are struggling the most with remote learning.