VIDEO: Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez joins “Chicago Tonight” on the first day of a new school year. (Produced by Acacia Hernandez)
Chicago Public Schools students are heading back to their classrooms Monday morning — a full week earlier than last year and well ahead of the more typical post-Labor Day return — while teachers and staff are hopeful for improvements after two pandemic-marred years.
Monday marks the first day of the 2022-23 school year, as some 300,000-plus students head back to class on one of the earliest start dates in recent memory.
“When our students are successful, our city is successful,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said during an event Monday morning at Excel Academy of South Shore. “And we’ve got to continue to dig down and make sure we’re making the investments that are necessary for all our kids, regardless of background, demographics, geography, we want those kids to have the smiles on their faces like I saw all across our city today.”
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez has promised a new “foundational standard of excellence” that he said includes reasonable class sizes and fewer split grade-level classes, as well as expanded school programming, additional development for students and teachers, and stronger social-emotional and mental health supports.
Martinez has repeatedly expressed a hope for a “recovery year” after COVID-19 broadly disrupted learning for students since the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the district recently updated its test-to-stay program, meaning students and staff will no longer be forced to quarantine following an exposure.
Instead, anyone who is exposed to COVID-19 in school — regardless of vaccination status — will be required to wear a mask in school for 10 days following exposure. CPS says those who are exposed are also “strongly encouraged” to get tested within three to five days.
Those who do test positive will be required to isolate for five days and must wear a mask for the following five days if their symptoms have subsided.
Chicago Teachers Union officials said they’ve been working to build a “more cooperative relationship” with CPS, evidenced by a recent tentative safety agreement the sides reached this month.
“I think there’s a great opportunity for having a fresh start,” CTU organizer Rebecca Martinez said outside Back of the Yards High School on Monday morning. “There’s an opportunity to partner with the district to really make it a different type of school year. And that’s what we’re looking forward to. We need that, our students need that.”
The tone is a marked shift compared with last school year, when CPS canceled classes on five consecutive days while CTU members refused to work in-person until a safety agreement was reached. Rank-and-file union members are expected to vote on the new safety agreement later this week.
The union does have lingering concerns, though, including the number of teaching vacancies, specifically within special education and bilingual education positions, as well as support staff shortages across the city.
Martinez said the district's vacancy rate is currently around 4% — with about 900 openings across 22,000 positions — but he believes CPS will be able to continue filling those jobs through the start of the school year.
"I feel overall confident," he said Monday. "We'll look at individual school issues here and there, but overall I feel very good."