CHICAGO — Thousands of Chicago Public Schools students returned to class Monday for the first time since in-person learning was shut down in March, despite continued pushback from teachers and parents.
As the nation’s third-largest district with about 355,000 students, CPS plans a gradual return to in-person instruction after going remote due to the coronavirus pandemic. The first wave of that plan began Monday as 6,000 pre-kindergarten and special needs students returned to class.
The Chicago Teachers Union has opposed reopening over safety concerns, claiming the district hasn’t done enough to protect teachers from Covid and pushing for distance learning to continue until they are vaccinated.
At Nathan Davis Elementary School in Brighton Park, teachers said every single student who had signed up to return to school actually backed out.
“We had about a dozen, between 10 and 20, students signed up for in-person learning across five classes, but every single one of those families pulled out last week,” said special education teacher Kate O’Rourke.
O’Rourke said parents pulled out their kids due to concerns about high rates of infection, as well as the difficulty of teaching young children to socialize when they’re not allowed to touch or share.
At Brentano Math and Science Academy in Logan Square, some teachers reported to the building as required but didn’t go inside. They said they didn’t feel safe going in, so they set up tables outside.
In the meantime, thousands of students across the city saw their teachers in person for the first time in nearly a year.
As she toured the halls of Dawes Elementary School, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said kids appeared to be “thrilled to be back in the classroom.”
Students sit at desks spaced at least six feet apart that are outfitted with safety shields. Masks are worn at all times. Signs and other symbols encourage social distancing.
“It is our city’s first day of embarking on our path to returning to in-person learning,” Lightfoot said.
But the CTU is accusing the mayor of sending mixed signals about the virus. Lightfoot extended the city’s stay-at-home order through January 22 last night, meaning it’ll be in effect for 12 days after the first wave of students returned to in-person learning.
Several members of City Council also questioned CPS officials about safety and readiness in the schools Monday.
“We should stay at home. It’s a stay-at-home advisory,” said Erin Kelley, CTU.
But parents who have felt the strain of remote learning at home while working full-time say the CPS plan is welcome.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson also threatened to not pay teachers who don’t show up for work, saying the phased plan is safe and will eventually bring everyone back to school.
“It is our mission at Chicago Public Schools to bring all of our students back over the course of the next few months,” Jackson said.
The CPS plan calls for an additional 70,000 kindergarteners through eighth graders students to return to their classrooms starting February 1.
“Our building managers are ready to take those requests as needed to make sure the schools are ready,” said Clarence Carson, Chief Facilities Officer at CPS.