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Missing from Chicago’s reopening debate: high schools. ‘We are a forgotten group.’

Trinity sitting on steps outside of school with her backpack and laptop.
A student sits on the steps of Chicago’s George Washington High School on the first day of school last year.
Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat

Johanna Fernandez’s students at Juarez High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side often ply her for clues about what the remainder of a trying school year might look like.

The social studies teacher does not want to tell them she has no answers: Her students grapple with so much uncertainty. Perhaps the district might start reopening high schools in April, she speculates instead.

Chicago has made improving its high school experience a central goal, but for now, it has no high school reopening plan or target date. Officials have not broadly sought input from high school students and parents on how to make the most of what remains of this school year — and some families feel left out of the loop amid a contentious debate over reopening the district’s elementary schools.

Some students and parents bemoan the lack of even a tentative timeline for bringing high schoolers back or visible steps to set the stage. Others want the district to invest more in improving remote learning and supporting high school students’ mental health.

At stake are significant gains Chicago has made in recent years in high school graduation rates and college preparedness. Already, district officials say they are unsettled by a 20% dip in the number of college applications submitted by district students this fall.

“No one ever talks about high school,” said Maria Guerrero-Suarez, the mom of two students at Curie High on the Southwest Side. “It feels like we are a forgotten group.”

In a recent interview with Chalkbeat, district CEO Janice Jackson spoke of the complexities of reopening high schools. Keeping students in self-contained pods is difficult in a setting where students interact with seven or eight teachers daily. Studies also suggest younger children are less likely than teens to spread the coronavirus.

But Jackson said a district team has been meeting with high school administrators to explore options. At some smaller, under-enrolled high schools, school leaders have said they have the space to socially distance students; at larger, more-crowded schools, that would be much harder.

Chicago is by no means an outlier. Districts across the country are prioritizing the reopening of elementary school buildings, setting aside the thornier question of a high school return for now. President Joe Biden’s plan for reopening school buildings in the first 100 days of his presidency does not include high schools.

Feeling out of the loop

A possible return to school is a frequent — and often dispiriting — subject of discussion among teens, says Nova Gomez, a senior at Lane Tech College Prep, a selective enrollment school on Chicago’s North Side. Some students hold out hope that they might yet return and experience senior year milestones such as prom.

Others, like Gomez, are resigned that a return won’t come this school year. Even the district’s original reopening plan last summer, which envisioned bringing in freshmen and sophomores for some in-person instruction, directed schools to keep upperclassmen fully virtual. She says for many high school students, the extended closure has meant a disrupted college application process, with less readily available guidance.

Especially frustrating is a sense of being left in the dark — and out of the reopening back-and-forth between the district and the Chicago Teachers Union, Gomez said. In recent days, high school students — bracing for a teachers strike that would cancel finals and cut off access to staff who write college letters of recommendation — have turned to social media for information.

“Almost everything we find does not reference high schoolers at all,” she said. “It hurts more not to have a clear answer on what’s going on.”

At Juarez on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Fernandez’s students also feel left out of the conversation. Fernandez facilitates the school’s student voice committee, one of the student groups that the district has cultivated to provide leaders with input on key issues. But this time, they have not been consulted.

Fernandez said some of her students — overwhelmed by guiding younger siblings through remote classes and feeling socially isolated — are eager to return to the campus. Others, many of whom have lost loved ones to COVID-19, don’t believe it’s safe to reopen. Both groups crave updates on the remainder of the school year.

“A lot of the students feel really unsure about their whole lives right now,” she said. “It’s stressful not to know what to tell them.”

Other cities, such as Philadelphia, that have also moved to reopen elementary schools similarly have no timeline at the high school level; some, such as Atlanta, have recently pushed back efforts to reopen high schools. Across Illinois, about 44% of high school students are attending schools that offer at least part-time in-person instruction, according to a state dashboard.

In Chicago, the district did recently unveil a new $5 million initiative called the CPS High School Strategy. But it sets its sights on longer-term goals beyond the immediate pressures of the pandemic, such as expanding access to college-credit courses and middle school algebra.

Still, some parents say they want to see high school loom larger in the current discussion — including ways to improve the virtual high school experience. Guerrero-Suarez, the mother of a ninth-grader and a senior at Curie High as well as an elementary student, said she strongly opposes the district’s plan to reopen elementary schools this month due to safety concerns.

Her older children, who have special needs, have worked hard to keep up their grades and stay engaged. But they also desperately want to be back in school.

“My senior is heartbroken she might not get a chance to say goodbye to her friends,” Guerrero-Suarez said.

High school students need hands-on support to ensure they are on track for graduation and college, she said. Despite her safety concerns, she believes the district should bring them back at least one day a week later this spring, so they can ask teachers and counselors questions and troubleshoot.

Brittany Preston, a South Side mom of six, including a freshman at Walter Payton College Prep and a sophomore at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, says the district must set a tentative high school return date and start preparing. For the freshman, the transition to high school — traditionally an academic and social challenge — has been especially difficult to navigate remotely. Her sophomore is drained by the daily gauntlet of virtual classes.

“It’s really sad we have a group of children who are not discussed — who are not at the table,” she said.

Calling for improvements to virtual learning

Some students say they want the district to be more attuned to how the pandemic’s pressures can affect their virtual studies. Adrian Zamudio, a student at Jones College Prep, addressed the school board last month, arguing against the decision to remove a day without live virtual classes his high school and others had embraced.

“Students need time to get away from the screens, go outside, engage in self-care, focus on their mental health, and interact with people in real life,” he told the board.

Citing the importance of protecting the district’s recent academic gains amid the pandemic’s disruption, officials have said they want high school students to have a live instruction schedule that mirrors the brick-and-mortar school day.

Fernandez, the teacher at Juarez, recently surveyed sophomores and juniors in her classes about the hurdles of virtual learning. Students said they want less screen time, longer breaks between classes, and more coordination between teachers on assigning work to keep students’ workloads manageable.

They also want more flexibility on turning in assignments: More than 50% said they are routinely dealing with slow or unreliable internet connections, and more than a third said they are helping younger siblings with remote classes.

“Many students are caught in really challenging positions,” she said.

Cassie Walker Burke contributed to this report.

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