Chicago’s Southside Occupational Academy reopened its campus with a painstaking safety plan, a program reimagined for the coronavirus age — and, like most schools across the city, a fraction of its students.
In some ways, the city’s push to reopen school buildings for students this month has been more difficult for Southside Occupational, which guides some of the district’s most vulnerable students with disabilities during the high-stakes transition to life after high school.
The school’s experience during these first two weeks captures the complexities of reopening during the pandemic. Fewer than a quarter of its students returned to in-person learning, and that group has shrunk slightly since last week. In the first several days, a student and employee tested positive for COVID-19, including an asymptomatic case caught by random testing. And some educators have said they remain scared to teach in person — or lamented the scaled-back experience for students, largely restricted for now from the hands-on learning that distinguishes the school.
Employees also say the school has been meticulous in planning and rolling out safety protocols that worked — from a triple temperature check at the start of the day to swift quarantines for two of its student pods last week. Some say for students and families severely tested by the pandemic’s school shutdowns, there has been visible payoff after only days of being back in the building.
“I admit: It’s been a lot. It’s been a whole lot,” Principal Joshua Long told his Local School Council earlier this week. But he added, “It was worth it. It continues to be worth it.”
Now, with the possibility of the district’s teachers refusing to report to school buildings as early as Monday, a new uncertainty looms for the school. Echoing demands the teachers union has brought to negotiations with the district, Evan Maniates, Southside’s union representative, said the reopening should come to a halt until staff is vaccinated. Students and all teachers — rather than only about a fifth — should be tested before returning to campus, he said.
“I don’t understand the rush to return under such unsafe conditions,” he said.
Fewer students return
For Southside Occupational, the abrupt shift to remote learning last spring was especially challenging. The specialty public high school helps students with special needs prepare for life after high school, and some of its hands-on programs and job training were impossible to replicate online. Some students, about 85% of whom are low-income, had limited experience with computers and struggled to navigate virtual lessons, Long said.
“When we first had remote learning come up in the spring, we were completely thrown off our game,” he said. “But we really got better.”
This fall, the school has worked to make remote lessons more interactive and tailored to students’ learning styles.
Attendance has steadily improved from about 45% at the start of the school year to more than 75% on the cusp of reopening, still well below the pre-pandemic rate of more than 90%. But Brandi Pacelli, a 10-year veteran teacher at the school, said some students were still not engaging, and some of those who did were struggling. One student had weekly meltdowns, screaming for help at the screen.
“Look at me! Look at me!” Pacelli would repeat, in a bid to replicate their calming routine remotely.
Eventually, her teaching assistant would be forced to mute the student so the class could continue. But, Pacelli said, “I could still see his face and how upset and scared he was.”
As the district geared up to reopen buildings, Long said he expected to see students return en masse to the school’s campus. He began planning and preparing.
Students would remain in their classrooms all day, leaving only to take bathroom breaks as a pod at assigned times. A janitor would clean restrooms after each pod. Staff members created a video to prepare students for the school’s new check-in process. They put up signs about good handwashing practices in the bathrooms. They stuck green dots on the floor to place students’ chairs, blue tape for their desks, and red lines to mark their routes into and out of classrooms.
“My best friend is a tape measure,” Long quipped.
But Long realizes now that he was naive to think most students would return. Of the more than 300 high schoolers the school serves, just 99 opted for in-person learning in December. By Jan. 11, when the school reopened for students, that number had shrunk to about 70. It’s down to 65, or slightly more than 20%, as of Wednesday.
Despite the school’s safety protocols, Long said some families told him they were just too scared of the coronavirus. Some students have medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to it or older relatives living in their homes. Some are not able to tolerate face masks for long stretches of time.
Mary Fahey Hughes, who serves on the Local School Council and as the special education liaison for Raise Your Hand, the parent advocacy group, chose to keep her son home.
She appreciated the attention to detail in the school’s safety plan. But she said with COVID-19 case counts in Chicago still high, especially in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, and vaccines for teachers likely becoming available within weeks — now is not the time to reopen schools. Two-thirds of the school’s students are Black, and almost 30% are Latino.
“I totally understand that our students with disabilities are falling behind right now,” she said. But, she added, “We have gone this far. Let’s just stick with it until there are meaningful vaccination levels.”
COVID-19 cases test the safety plan
Southside Occupational’s strict safety procedures were on display on a recent morning, as about a dozen yellow school buses ferrying students from across the city lined up in front of the school. Most had only one student on board. Students, who used to come in together through the main entrance, now use three separate doors to help with social distancing.
Students, who already had gotten a temperature check before boarding the bus, paused after getting off to get checked again. Some lifted their winter hats off their foreheads to help. Then, they hurried inside the building to check-in stations, where they had their temperatures checked a third time and completed the district’s daily health screener, if needed.
(Chicago Public Schools did not agree to allow a reporter inside the school.)
Long said the school’s protocols for monitoring and responding to COVID-19 cases to rein in school transmission — designed for “when, not if, COVID comes into the school” — worked last week.
On the first day students returned to the campus, a student who passed the morning temperature checks later started running a fever and was sent to the school’s care room. The following day, the student’s COVID-19 test came back positive.
Long said he informed his staff in the student’s classroom, and the student’s pod eventually went into a two-week quarantine. A note to the entire school community went out that night — a turnaround Long said he wishes had been shorter. Later in the same week, an employee who had displayed no symptoms tested positive through the district’s new random employee testing program.
At a recent meeting of the Local School Council, which along with roughly 70 other councils signed a letter advocating for a delay of the district’s reopening plan, Long received praise for the school’s efforts to ensure a safe return for students.
“Does it take away my fear completely?” said teaching assistant Brigette Johnson of the diligent sanitizing and social distancing she has seen. “Nothing does. It does ease some of my anxiety.”
But members also voiced lingering apprehension.
After Long discussed the school’s COVID-19 cases, community representative Erica Nanton said it was a stroke of luck that the asymptomatic employee was among the fraction of staff tested.
“From the process you shared, it went as perfect as it could go,” she said. “It’s just a lot to gamble on — it always going this well. It feels like this house of cards.”
Trying to merge two worlds
For some staff members, the scaled-back program the school is offering students has been an adjustment. To mitigate the spread of the virus, Southside Occupational has suspended hands-on activities, such as tending to its chicken coop or bee hives. A few days into the new routine, Long said a teacher he saw in a hallway pulled him aside and started crying.
“This is hard. It’s not how it used to be,” she said.
“We are all doing the best we can,” he told her.
But some aspects of the return have worked better than expected, some staff members said. Long said he already has heard from parents and teachers about marked changes in students’ state of mind and behavior. Some who had stopped engaging in virtual classes are participating in their in-person classes. Overall attendance has ticked up to more than 82%.
“Being able to see those students and their energy and happiness at being back in school — it’s infectious,” Long said. “It’s so nice to have that reminder of, ‘This is why we do this work.’”
Pacelli said the first days were punctuated by frequent reminders for students to keep their distance and pull their masks over their nose; now, she just occasionally taps her nose. She’s been thrilled to see the student who had frequent meltdowns on screen smile again and ask questions in class.
“He’s the reason I am here,” she said.
Some Southside educators are teaching in-person and virtual students at the same time, and many were anxious about it.
“You are trying to merge two worlds,” Pacelli said. “But we’ve gotten into the groove now.”
Some of the school’s virtual students continue on with educators who are teaching virtually. Sixteen of the school’s 37 teachers and 10 out of 50 special education classroom assistants received accommodations to work from home.
The school ensured each classroom had an interactive whiteboard and a wide-view camera, with microphones for teachers on the way. Pacelli has three students in her classroom and seven logging in virtually. The virtual students have a view of the classroom, and the in-person learners can see their peers projected onto a screen. They have been able to engage with each other and discuss each other’s work, she said.
For Maniates, the Southside union rep who teaches carpentry, the steps the school has taken to mitigate risk have not tamped down his anxiety. He does not believe the air purifiers the district provided are adequate for the school’s classrooms or that the scheduled bathroom breaks work for students. Simultaneous instruction has not worked equally well in all classrooms, likely shortchanging some virtual students.
Like several other teachers, he sees three pods of students a day, raising his risk of exposure to the virus.
“I am scared; I’m going in because I need to feed a family and pay a mortgage,” Maniates said.
At the recent meeting of the Local School Council, Long said he remains committed to providing in-person instruction.
“We are service-oriented,” he told the council members. “My goal is to do the best we possibly can for our in-person students.”