Chicago reopened its schools Monday. Can they stay open?

Families line up outside Bateman Elementary in Albany Park on the first day of in-person school.
Families line up outside Bateman Elementary in Albany Park on the first day of in-person school. (Yana Kunichoff/Chalkbeat)

Parents at Albany Park’s Bateman Elementary embraced a first-day-of-school tradition Monday: They snapped photos of their pre-kindergartners in front of the school’s brick building.

But in a school year like no other, the rite of passage gave way to the less familiar new normal for Chicago Public Schools. Families with students formed a line punctuated by orange cones as a staff member checked temperatures with a digital thermometer.

Nearly 400 campuses opened for the first time since March, welcoming back students in pre-kindergarten and special education. Chicago officials did not have student attendance numbers Monday, but they deemed the reopening a success — even as they faced some powerful headwinds in a district fast becoming a national symbol for acrimonious school reopenings. 

The city’s teachers union continued to oppose the reopening plan. District officials made moves Monday night to cut off access to remote learning sites for teachers who refused to report to buildings. Skeptical Chicago aldermen grilled district officials from morning until evening. And the Illinois Legislature passed a bill that, if signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, could expand what the teachers union can negotiate over, possibly complicating the conversation. 

This week’s reopening is just the start. In three weeks, the district plans to open buildings to another 70,000 students — or roughly a third of those in kindergarten through eighth grade — for in-person instruction two days a week. (No word yet on when high schools will reopen.) City Council members cautioned against the pitfalls of an uneven rollout, saying that some schools appeared to have sufficient safety equipment, such as face shields and Plexiglass barriers, while others did not.

“One of the stark things that I saw in my schools was just the difference,” said Susan Sadlowski Garza, an alderman who toured schools in her ward last week. “I spent 20-plus years in Chicago Public Schools as an educator, and what we say on paper is way different than implementing it in person.”

City officials said they would not be able to provide student attendance numbers until next week because schools would need time to enter the data manually, and a small number of schools are offering a blended model, with students starting in-person learning later in the week. 

More than 70% of teachers and 80% of support staff returned, the district said. Some of those who did not come to their school buildings were following safety protocols; roughly 18% of employees did not clock in and offer a valid reason for not doing so. 

“The majority of our teachers are doing exactly what they are supposed to,” schools chief Janice Jackson said.

By Monday night, the district had sent letters to teachers warning that if they did not report to classrooms and did not have accommodations, access to their Google Classroom accounts would be blocked and their pay docked starting Tuesday. The teachers union has said it believes that would violate the law. The hard line prompted a swift reaction on social media.

Educators and others have sharply criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to proceed with reopening school campuses when she extended the city’s stay-at-home advisory amid double-digit COVID-19 positivity rates. But Lightfoot insisted that she sees no contradiction: Schools are considered an essential service. 

“From the very beginning, schools were exempt from the stay-at-home advisory,” she said.

A classroom inside Dawes Elementary in Chicago on Jan. 11, 2021 (Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat)

The first day back

Maria Vazquez, a mother of two pre-K students at Dawes Elementary in the city’s Ashburn neighborhood, spoke Monday at the district’s reopening press conference, describing how young learners need the social and emotional support, routine, and stability provided by in-person learning. The school’s intake procedures Monday morning reassured her it was the right call.

“I am grateful to have the opportunity of in-person learning and believe it’s the right decision for me and my children,” she said in Spanish.  

The 30 preschool students that came to Dawes Monday attend both half-time and full-time preschool, said Principal Mary Dixon, who showed a group of reporters around. In total, 39 preschool students, or one-third of the grade, opted for in-person learning. 

The hallways, bathrooms and classroom walls bore posters reminding students to cover their mouths if they cough and not get too close to their classmates. Plastic covered every other sink and stall in the bathroom. At lunchtime, students ate behind clear dividers at their desks.

They started learning the rules for social distancing, when it’s ok to take off their mask (lunch time!) and how to thoroughly wash their hands. 

The school’s care room, a modified classroom, held six chairs spaced six feet apart from each other, along with a small air purifier. 

(Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat)

But such health and safety protocols did little to calm many anxious teachers. 

The teachers union began staging its opposition before sunrise, organizing educators outside Davis Elementary in Chicago’s Brighton Park. 

Kate O’Rourke, a teacher at the school, said only three of her preschool families elected to return to in-person instruction, but then they changed their minds. Over the weekend, she received an accommodation to work from home.

O’Rourke said colleagues are still struggling to rethink a school day that, before the pandemic, revolved around hands-on play and close interactions with students. She described what she felt were draconian restrictions: “Large elementary-sized desks were moved into classrooms. We’re highly encouraged to teach children in their desks all day long. No play on the playground. No sharing, no touching. We’re confused about whether we can have books. There’s a ton of confusion over the plan.” 

She said she worried that teaching assistants and special education assistants, who generally earn less than teachers, were returning because they felt they didn’t have options. The school’s union delegate, Erin Kelley, a sixth grade teacher, said teachers are trying to support each other, even if some choose to return. 

“What I’ve been saying is that the choice is yours,” she said. “You have to do what’s best for you.”

Outside Whittier Elementary in Pilsen, a handful of parents and community members carried signs with slogans like “We demand a safe, sanitary, and healthy return!” Teresa Contreras, who serves on a nearby school council, said more groups were organizing outside of neighborhood schools and trying to speak with parents who had arrived for drop-off. Asked whether she worried about school communities dividing over the issue, she answered: “We feel a call to action.” 

Later that morning, the city’s aldermen on the council’s education committee pressed district officials on the fine print of their plan during an often tense day-long hearing. They grilled district leaders about air purifiers, substitute pools, staffing accommodations, custodian counts, and personal protective equipment. 

While a handful of aldermen spoke in support of getting children back in school, the majority expressed deep doubts. “Given that this virus disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities, given that the same families are choosing to not return, and given that (teaching remotely and in-person simultaneously) will be like trying to ride two horses with one ass — why wouldn’t we wait?” asked Alderman Sophia King, who co-chairs the committee.

In one pointed exchange, South Side Alderman Jeanette Taylor — who participated in a 2015 hunger strike to save Walter Dyett High School from a wave of school closings — pressed officials on consequences for staff who decide not to return. 

“Y’all making people choose between whether they’re going to have somewhere to live and eat and coming back to your building,” Taylor said.

Hours into the discussion, Kenneth Fox, the district’s chief health officer, shot back that private schools in Chicago as well as schools around the world have been open for months: “Talking about fears, this is something that frightens me: That kids are out of school and missing their opportunities for learning.”

What could be ahead  

A preschool student works alongside a teacher in a classroom at Dawes Elementary in Chicago on Jan. 11, 2021. (Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat)

For weeks leading up to the reopening, Chicago officials urged the public to have patience and said the shock of reopening schools would soon usher in a different sort of normal. 

In the days and weeks ahead, there are several potential game-changers: whether COVID-19 rates surge, if more parents voice support or opposition to reopening plans, a state labor court decision that would give the teachers union the right to negotiate reopening details, and the possibility of teachers striking.

For now, some teachers and families are navigating the moment as best as they can.

Elizabeth Carrick, a pre-K teacher at a school on Chicago’s Near West Side, said her first day back went relatively smoothly, but she has lingering concerns. In her classroom, two students returned to in-person learning, and six continued learning from home. Many schools have seen a drop in pre-K enrollment.

As she and her colleagues expected, it was challenging to keep students apart in a preschool classroom.

“It’s hard to keep 6 feet apart if you are trying to help a child put their mask on or zip up a coat,” she said, adding that one student insisted she was tired of wearing her mask by the afternoon. 

Carrick, who co-teaches with a special education teacher, was able to share the responsibility of working with virtual learners during their hour of live video instruction. That meant she did not have to teach both groups of students simultaneously, as some other teachers do. 

“That’s not the position many other teachers find themselves in,” she said. 

Joe Myers, who has autism and attends Lane Tech College Prep, spent the night before his return to school packing his school bag, making sure he had extra sanitizer and extra face masks, with barely restrained glee. 

“It was more exciting than any first day of school he’s ever had,” said his mother Kate Myers. 

She had thought long and hard about whether Joe should return to school, but after months of watching him regress she decided it was time to return to in-person schooling. And Joe is good at following rules, she said.

She said she also was motivated to send her son back because, in just a few years, he will age out of the special services that had helped her support him, even after her husband died.

Myers said her son was energized by learning in the school building with his favorite teacher, even though the lesson itself was remote. He also was excited to reunite with security guards and cafeteria workers who all knew his name.

“I got a text from my son at lunch,” she said. “He was super excited.”

Corrected: An earlier version of this story stated that Pat Dowell co-chairs the City Council education committee. Ald. Sophia King is the co-chair.  

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