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Chicago expects 55,000 more students in its biggest reopening test yet

Mayor Lori Lightfoot enters a classroom at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy on the city’s North Side on the first day of in-person school this year for kindergarten to 5th grade students. Mila Koumpilova/Chalkbeat

Almost a year after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered Chicago schools, the city’s elementary students returned to classrooms Monday — a second wave in the city’s contentious reopening push and a key test as the district aims to offer in-person learning to all students this school year.

City leaders and parents touted the day as a joyous milestone and a major step toward normalcy in the city’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. They also confronted looming questions about logistical complexities in the effort to reopen school buildings in the country’s third largest district, from staffing shortages at some schools to the goal of convincing more families that the city can pull off a safe return to campuses.

Almost 61,000 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade as well as some high school special education students are expected in school buildings by the end of next week, when the district will bring back the middle grades. That’s fewer than 30% of students eligible to return, and a marked drop from the number of students who had indicated in December they would return to school buildings in early 2021.

The district has not yet released data on accommodations for teachers and staff working from home or on substitute teacher and support staff hires. But even as the district’s principals group has rung alarms about staffing levels at some Chicago schools in recent days, district CEO Janice Jackson said she is confident in the district’s staffing plans. The district has hired about 500 out of 1,000 substitute teachers it aims to bring on board, Jackson estimated, and it is making headway in hiring support staff, though she did not specify a number.

“We are going to recapture the magic in our classrooms,” Jackson said at a press event at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy on the city’s North Side. “It shouldn’t be lost on us that this has been a year in the making.”

Jackson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot toured Hawthorne Monday morning — a setting that inadvertently highlighted a demographic divide in the district’s reopening. Although about two-thirds of students expected to return this month are Black or Latino, white families, which make up a small fraction in the district, have been much more likely to opt for in-person instruction.

At Hawthorne, a magnet school where white students make up a slight majority of the student body, about half of families chose to return to the classroom. Principal Patricia Catherine Davlantes spoke of mental health challenges that students, especially at the middle school level, have experienced amid the protracted isolation of the pandemic. While most Chicago students opting for the city’s hybrid model will receive two days in the classroom, the school will offer four days of in-person learning to kindergartners — a reality that illustrates how implementation can vary school to school.

The visit highlighted the new routines of school during the pandemic era, with students lining up at several entrances to have their temperatures checked. In a second grade classroom, Lightfoot and Jackson checked in with masked students as their teacher asked the children to take out bags of coins in preparation for a math lesson. The teacher then knelt by a laptop on her desk, where she repeated the request for peers who had logged on the class virtually; that group was also projected on the whiteboard for the classroom students to see.

“Hello friends!” Lightfoot said as she held the laptop. “Good to see you.”

The district is embracing a simultaneous instruction approach, in which teachers work with students in the classroom and peers learning virtually at the same time — a practice that has drawn concerns from educators and parents, who worry it might disrupt the remote learning experience. Some complained on social media Monday about poor sound quality and other technical issues.

Lightfoot told reporters later than she was touched to hear a second grader tell her he looks forward to making friends now that he is back in the classroom. She said it was uplifting to see children skipping on the way to school with their parents Monday morning and kindergartners stepping into Hawthorne for the first time.

“The level of excitement is simply off the charts,” she said.

Jenny Seidelman, a parent at Decatur Classical in West Ridge, spoke of the mix of excitement and nervousness she and her kindergartner both felt Monday morning as she dropped him off at his school for the first time. Remote learning was just not working as a first-time school experience for her son, she said. From tearful mornings to entire weekdays spent next to her son coaxing him to pay attention as she tried to do her own remote work, Seidelman said that virtual instruction made her son dislike school.

Her family jumped at the opportunity to send him to in-person learning, even as she understood why some families, with a longer history with the district, might feel mistrustful.

“We know that there are schools all across the country that have reopened,” she said. Still, “I completely get why parents who don’t live our experience wouldn’t feel safe about sending their kids.”

Rosalia, a parent whose last name Chalkbeat Chicago withheld to protect her identity, said she sent her daughter back to an elementary school in the Hermosa area, because her fifth grader was bored learning at home. “It wasn’t affecting her grades — she’s a straight-A student — but doing everything from the computer was affecting her.”

Rosalia said she was cautiously optimistic, but she worried a bit that the vast majority of students at her daughter’s school had so far selected remote learning. “I would like to see other parents feeling more confident. I know it’s hard — but we’re just trying to normalize something.”

At last week’s school board meeting, Troy LaRaviere, the head of the district’s principal group, cautioned board members that staffing challenges threatened to strain the relationship between schools and families returning to in-person learning. More than 70% of principals who participated in a recent survey said they did not feel they have enough staff members available to work in person to smoothly reopen schools, LaRaviere said. He noted some students will be learning in the classroom with educators teaching from home — a scenario some families might consider a letdown.

Jackson said about 6,000 teachers and staff have received accommodations to work from home. She acknowledged that some schools have run into issues with staffing, but said the district is working to resolve them.

“We don’t have any schools that don’t have the staff to reopen. We have some schools that are experiencing staffing challenges,” she said.

Jackson said by late last week, 18,000 district employees — or about a third of its workforce — had been offered COVID-19 vaccines, what she described as an “impressive clip” to the district’s vaccination push. She said as more teachers and staff members become vaccinated, the staffing equation will become easier to solve.

Jackson again predicted a “huge jump” in in-person learning as families taking a “wait-and-see” approach watch the reopening unfold in the coming weeks.

Remote learning has been working well for Nicole Abreu’s kindergarten daughter. Her school, Jahn School of Fine Arts in Lake View, sent home Play-doh and other hands-on materials to help her learn. She appreciated that her school made minimal changes to her daughter’s schedule.

“It’s provided a consistency that I think is very comforting for her,” said Abreu, who taught in San Francisco public schools before relocating to Chicago.

With COVID-19 rates down in Chicago, and many teachers vaccinated, she’s weighing a return to school for her daughter in the fourth quarter. But instead of safety, Abreu’s questions are now about what the school experience will be like, she said.

Among those questions: Will students only be eating in their classroom? Will there be enough staff for recess? Will they be able to maintain social distancing if more students come back?

“What about schools who don’t have the staff to pull this off?” she asked.

Jackson said the district will begin meeting with the Chicago Teachers Union this week to work on a plan for reopening high schools later this spring. She said the framework the two sides worked out during tense elementary school reopening talks earlier this year will serve as an important framework, and she believes the district and union are on the same page that reopening high schools is a question of how, not if.

That undertaking is a challenge given the multiple class changes at the high school level, one that might be easier to pull off with social distancing at city schools that are underenrolled, Jackson said. She also promised a survey and town halls to collect student and parent input on the high school reopening. The district has gotten intense criticism for not engaging families more broadly as it crafted its elementary reopening.

“I don’t want people to give up hope that high school students will return this year,” she said.

Cassie Walker Burke contributed to this report.

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