Tumultuous First Week Of In-Person Classes For CPS Raises Questions About What Lies Ahead

While some families were relieved to be back, opposition continues as the first COVID-19 cases crop up in reopened schools.

Aileen Reilly, a teacher at Dawes Elementary School, works with her prekindergarten students on their first day back for in-person to learning in Chicago Public Schools on January 11, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Aileen Reilly, a teacher at Dawes Elementary School, works with her prekindergarten students on their first day back for in-person to learning in Chicago Public Schools on January 11, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Tumultuous First Week Of In-Person Classes For CPS Raises Questions About What Lies Ahead

While some families were relieved to be back, opposition continues as the first COVID-19 cases crop up in reopened schools.

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Chicago Public Schools finally ushered a few thousand students into classrooms this week after 10 long months of remote learning and two other attempts that were ultimately delayed.

But, as it looks to bring in 70,000 more students on Feb. 1, questions abound about whether the reopening qualifies as a success and whether it is worth it.

Here’s what is known as the first week back ends: Some families are relieved to have their children back in school buildings, some teachers are glad to see students learning in classrooms again and school district leaders are happy to the transition back to in-person learning has begun.

“There was excitement,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said on Friday. “One principal told me that a staff member said a child told her he wanted to sleep at school because he so missed Mrs. so and so.”

But it was also a tumultuous and chaotic week: Several cases of the virus have been detected among adults and children going into schools, and there’s already at least one class returning to remote learning after a student tested positive.

In addition, an increasing number of aldermen and local school councils are calling on the school district to abandon the plan, which started with preschool and some special needs students and expands to all elementary students on Feb. 1. Sixty LSCs, the only elected body in CPS that includes parents and community members, have written letters either opposing the plan or expressing deep concerns about it.

On Thursday, 164 nurses, many of whom work for CPS, delivered a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot asking her to abandon reopening. They pointed out that most poor Black and Latino families chose to keep their families at home, and they are the ones the mayor and school district leaders say they most want in schools.

“We’ve seen the suffering that this disease has brought upon people in the city, disproportionately Black people and Latino people and that’s who makes up CPS,” said school nurse Denise Kosuth. “They’re not putting their kids in because they have seen their family members pass away. … They don’t trust a system, which asks zero nurses to be part of their process of figuring out what a safe reopen would look like.”

The move to in-person learning also has left hundreds of students with substitute teachers. As of Wednesday evening, 100 teachers and staff were locked out of their classrooms for defying orders to return to classrooms and had their pay docked. These teachers say they want to be able to teach remotely rather than return to the classroom.

And the school district may be exacerbating an already sour relationship with some teachers and teacher assistants in the midst of a teachers shortage. The data from Dec. 30 shows 570 open teacher and teacher assistant positions.

On Friday, Jackson repeated that she is open to compromising with the Chicago Teachers Union on a reopening agreement. And at a CTU protest against reopening, where teachers said hundreds of staff took a day off to support teachers locked out of CPS, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union said the two sides have been having better conversations in recent days. Still, no deal is in sight.

What is still unknown is how many students are actually benefiting from in-person learning. More than 6.400 were expected in schools, but many principals and teachers say far fewer showed up.

Meanwhile, teachers and school staff have been moved up in line for the vaccine and Chicago Department of Public Health officials say they could start getting it as soon as February. All this has heightened calls to hold off bringing more students in until teachers and staff can get vaccinated.

But, so far, Lightfoot and school district leaders have insisted there is no going back. Speaking Monday at Dawes Elementary School on the Southwest Side, Lightfoot reiterated her stance that getting students in school buildings is critical. They also insist that in-person learning is safe with the protocols they’ve put in place based on early research and an analysis of in-person learning at Chicago Catholic schools this fall.

“We’ve learned over these many months that the fact of the matter is remote learning, while it works well for some, it absolutely has not served all of our students equally or well.” Lightfoot said. “The best learning for our youngest learners involves social and emotional interactions with their teachers, with their students, with their staff.”

Erin Berry, a teacher at Dawes Elementary School, serves lunch to her students on their first day back to in-person learning. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

The upside of in-person learning

At Dawes, principal Mary Dixon said she was glad to have students back in buildings. To get ready, she took some steps on her own to resolve some sticky issues and make the school safer.

For example, parents were worried about teachers who would have to teach in the classroom and remotely at the same time. But for this first group of students, teachers were able to divide duties and no one had to teach remote and in-person simultaneously.

Davis also used her school’s discretionary money to buy plastic screens for each child’s desk. That helped as some of the 3-year-olds let their masks fall down..

The plan for this first week was to focus on teaching the young children the protocols of school during a pandemic. Instead of hugs, the children were told to give air high-fives.

And after just a few days, some parents said they are already seeing the benefits of in-person instruction.

“I have noticed a significant social and emotional change in all three of my kids,” said Kathryn Rose, whose three preschool age kids go to Talcott Fine Arts and Museum Academy and Nathaniel Dett Elementary, both just west of the Loop. “They come home, they excitedly share stories from schools, they are bonding over the shared experience of being at school.”

Rose said having her kids back in school has also been a game changer in her family life.

“We live in an apartment with five of us and we’ve been living on top of each other and they certainly have gone through periods of crabbiness, [being] depressed. I believe that remote learning has not worked for a cohort this young.”

But Rose and other parents who sent their kids to schools this week are in the minority of parents. Less than 40% of parents told the school district in December they would send their children back into school buildings starting this week.

And appears there’s been some drop off. The school district won’t release attendance numbers until next week, but several principals told WBEZ that a half to a third of expected students returned.

At Davis Elementary, none of the 12 preschool students expected returned, according to the school’s preschool teachers. Hedges Elementary on the South Side expected 30 students Monday but only half showed up. At Vick Early Childhood and Family Center on the South Side, 176 students were expected across two campuses. That’s the most of any school. As of Tuesday, there were 156 students.

Some schools with fewer than expected students serve mostly Latino students.

Already, the data showed that white students and those with higher incomes were overrepresented among the students returning.

Suder Montessori Magnet Elementary staff taught remotely outside their school on January 11, 2021 to protest requiring teachers to return for in-person learning. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Teachers blocked from virtual classrooms

Some students who remained at home felt the collateral effects of the shift to in-person learning. The school system is disciplining teachers unwilling to return to schools by blocking them from their remote classes, even those that have no students returning to the classroom. This means their students were left with substitute teachers.

Jackson downplayed the level of resistance. 

“A large majority of teachers, as well as and educational support staff, have been coming to work and I don’t want to undercut the importance of that because I know there are people who have returned to work that aren’t completely comfortable, but they are doing what they think is best on behalf of children,” she said Friday.

But she said the school district has to take a stand because ultimately it will need all staff back. It expects more than 70,000 students on February 1 and eventually wants all students to return.

Still, parents say their young children are shaken. Andrea Vasco McGehee said her son’s preschool teacher at Whittier School in Pilsen was locked out and was not able to prepare the substitute for the class. All the students in the class are remote.

“We have four-year-olds wondering, ‘who is this stranger today?’” she said. “The changes that have happened have really impacted my son. He is distracted and it is not equitable and it is disruptive.”

Other parents who kept their children learning remotely expressed similar concerns when they saw unfamiliar teachers or no teachers at all on their screens.

“She is very attached to her teacher, which is amazing. She only knows them on the computer,” said Jenny Ludwig, whose 4-year-old Margot goes to Brentano Math and Science Academy in Logan Square. Like McGehee’s son, when Margot saw a sub instead of her regular teacher Wednesday, she wasn’t as talkative or engaged, Ludwig said.

Teachers who are locked out say class isn’t not even working well when classroom assistants and others in the school pick up the slack.

“It’s not the same at all because they don’t know the students and we work as a team and the whole team needs to be there,” said Linda Perales, a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary School in Little Village.

Pressure on CPS

At the same time, Local School Councils are voicing concerns. As of Thursday, 60 LSCs have signed letters opposing the reopening or raising significant questions about it. The most recent is from Bell Elementary, a North Side school where 70% of students are slated to return.

In part, the letter reads: “Our community understands the current and emerging science related to COVID-19 and schools, but we have deep concerns about CPS’ ability to execute their plan fully by February 1 to provide maximum safety as well as the best educational continuity for our students.”

In addition, 40 aldermen have signed a letter opposing the reopening and the City Council Education Committee held a hearing on Monday.

But neither the local school councils nor the aldermen have any power when it comes to whether the plan will move forward. That is entirely the purview of the mayor and the school district.

Sarah Karp and Adriana Cardona-Maguigad cover education for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @sskedreporter, @AdrianaCardMag and @WBEZeducation.