Nearly 26,000 high school students within Chicago Public Schools were expected to return to their classrooms Monday to resume in-person learning for the first time in more than a year.
“Today was probably the strangest first day of school I’ve ever had,” said Sam Texeira, a history teacher at Roberto Clemente Community Academy in West Town. “But I can absolutely say it was really nice to see kids. I think there was a real sense of excitement that we’re back. I think a lot of students were really happy to see us.”
Malencia Shorty was among them.
The Roberto Clemente freshman said it was “weird” because many students weren’t talkative — although they’d technically been classmates since school started in late August, most students don’t turn on their cameras during online learning, so she said she didn’t really know anyone. Still, she said she learned more being physically at school.
“I got more done, because I had more help,” she said.
When learning remotely, “I really don’t pay attention. It’s like I can’t sit at a computer screen all day and just watch it,” Shorty said.
Even as he taught the handful of students who opted for in-person school on Monday, Texeira and other teachers had to also continue teaching the students learning from home.
“I have a student teacher and I have a co-teacher for one class and I said, ‘My God I don’t know how we could do this if there weren’t more adults here.’ Because your natural sort of inclination is to help the people in front of you, and as you’re doing that you sort of realize, ‘Oh wait a minute there’s like 20 other kids out there that I need to help,’” he said. “It almost feels like being a game show host, like there’s our studio audience and there’s you all (at home).”
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey said concerns about the coronavirus are different for high school campuses compared to elementary schools.
“In elementary schools students go and stay with a teacher. In high school you go and you see seven or eight teachers during the course of the day. What that means for the pandemic is in elementary school you’ve got a pod, you’re with the same kids and the same teacher all day long,” he said. “High school, that’s not the case at all. You have a completely different set of 30 or so students every single period of the day in high school. So it means that if you’ve got that one kid who turns out to have COVID, as they go through they’re going to see a lot of people.”
Sharkey said it’s important that high schools abide by COVID-19 capacity limits.
Per the agreement between CTU and CPS, students may be on campus either one, two or four days of the week, depending on student body size and the percentage of students who opt in to in-person instruction.
Monday’s returnees mark the final cohort of CPS students to go back to school this year, one day after rank-and-file members of the CTU voted to approve a safe reopening agreement with the school district.
“What I heard time and time again is that a lot of kids were not doing well when they weren’t in school, which is why I’m so happy (today),” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said Monday during a news conference with Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Walter Payton College Prep. “I think I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time today.”
Jackson has for weeks said that getting high school students back into their classrooms was the district’s “top priority.” While CPS had set Monday as it’s target return date as early as last month, it was unclear if students and staff would actually be coming back until a deal with the CTU was reached.
After weeks of negotiations, CPS and the union reached a tentative agreement Thursday on a safe reopening plan. The union’s House of Delegates and then its full rank-and-file membership subsequently voted to approve that agreement, laying the groundwork for Monday’s return.
As part of that deal, CPS will create a COVID-19 vaccination program for high school students and help their eligible family members set up vaccination appointments.
“This agreement secures critical safety standards for returning in-person to high schools, delivers groundbreaking wins for the protection of our students and defends the safety and working conditions of all members in CPS — pre-K, cluster, elementary, (paraprofessionals and school-related personnel), clinicians and more,” Sharkey said in a statement. “The new vaccination program for CPS students and families is, we believe, the first of its kind in the nation to be negotiated by a union of educators.”
The agreement comes after a similar deal reached in February allowed for the return of K-8 students and staff.
According to CPS, more than 121,000 students districtwide have chosen to return to their schools this academic year. That includes 25,929 high schoolers who returned to their classrooms Monday.
About 140,000 other children opted to continue remote learning, while CPS did not hear back from another 17,330 students.
At Payton, where Jackson and the mayor spoke Monday, 865 students opted to resume in-person learning, while about 300 others will continue learning at home for the remainder of this school year.
“We fought very hard for this moment,” Lightfoot said, “because we felt like it was very important and a question of basic equity for our students.”