‘Tumultuous, Rocky, Unpredictable’: Chicago’s Lost School Year

The COVID-19 school closure hits all students, but it’s been particularly hard on Chicago students who also lost time to a strike last fall.

Anely Lopez
Chicago public high school senior Anely Lopez has been going over her International Baccalaureate coursework at home during the school shutdown. She recently learned her IB exams were canceled — another loss in a year of losses for Chicago Public Schools students. Provided photo / Blanca Estela Hernandez
Anely Lopez
Chicago public high school senior Anely Lopez has been going over her International Baccalaureate coursework at home during the school shutdown. She recently learned her IB exams were canceled — another loss in a year of losses for Chicago Public Schools students. Provided photo / Blanca Estela Hernandez

‘Tumultuous, Rocky, Unpredictable’: Chicago’s Lost School Year

The COVID-19 school closure hits all students, but it’s been particularly hard on Chicago students who also lost time to a strike last fall.

Sam Brody had big plans for the second semester of his senior year at Payton College Prep on Chicago’s Near North Side. From dreaming up senior pranks, to prom and taking Advanced Placement exams in May, Sam was looking forward to closing out his last year of high school strong.

Instead, he is looking at spending the rest of his senior year behind a computer, catching up on schoolwork online.

Students in Chicago and across the country are all giving up a lot with schools closed due to COVID-19. However, the losses are especially great for Chicago public high school students and seniors in particular, who first endured the 11-day Chicago Public Schools teacher strike in October and now the coronavirus pandemic.

From missed homecomings and state athletic tournaments in the fall, to end-of-the year events like prom, senior luncheons, trips to Great America and graduation, so much has been put on hold for Chicago’s seniors.

“Tumultuous,” is how Sam describes his last year in high school. “Very rocky, up and down, unpredictable.”

Sam
Sam Brody holds the tux he picked out for prom at his school, Chicago’s Payton College Prep. With the coronavirus shutdown, all end-of-year festivities, including prom, are on hold. Courtney Brody / Provided photo

The chaos began with the teachers strike in October. Though city officials agreed to make up five of those days, so far the district has made up only three.

That left seniors with catching up to do. This included getting college recommendations submitted and completing important course work.

“We missed out on some of the content that we were supposed to learn,” Sam said. “We couldn’t do any work or reach out to our teachers [during the strike], which might mess us up with the AP exams coming up.”

Students who earn high scores on AP exams, which will be online this year, can earn college credit. Students who were part of the International Baccalaureate program, which offers a rigorous curriculum leading to a special IB diploma, also had to readjust and accept unpredictable changes.

Seniors in this program have been studying hard for the IB exams, including making up for instructional time missed during the strike. But, with COVID-19, the IB organization canceled all tests scheduled for May.

That was a big blow for Anely Lopez, a senior at George Washington High School on the far Southeast Side. She sacrificed time away from friends preparing for those exams. “A lot of us were having to make decisions as to if we wanted to stay up late and study for an exam or if we wanted to attend a basketball game,” she said.

But there is a chance she could still earn an IB diploma. According to Michael Pestich, the IB coordinator at Washington High School, the IB organization said students will be evaluated based on course work and new guidelines.

The losses have also piled up outside of academics.

Anely had planned to go prom dress shopping with her mother at a boutique set up by the Glass Slipper Project. The group each spring donates thousands of gowns to Chicago public high school seniors. But it is canceled this year.

Students are losing “a big piece of their childhood.” said Adrian Calleros, a soccer coach at Solorio academy on the Southwest Side. “Anybody remembers vividly their senior year. They remember prom, their trips, and sports. They remember — whether it was losing that final game or winning that final game.”

Calleros’ soccer team was one of the top ranked in Illinois this year. The strike, though, knocked them out of the state tournament. The seven seniors who were on his team missed the chance to be seen by college recruiters, he said.

There is a lot of uncertainty about what will happen in the next few weeks or months. Some schools say they might hold proms and graduation ceremonies later in the summer.

Anely, who will be first in her family to graduate from high school, said she’s not giving up on the idea of taking her parents to her graduation ceremony and walking the stage. “Even if it’s in July or in August,” she said.

For now, Sam and Anely understand why everyone must stay home.

They just wish they’d had a more meaningful farewell when they said goodbye to their classmates and teachers as school shut down last month.

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