COVID-19 surges. Staff shortages. Rocky school-based testing roll-out. Transportation challenges. Canceled classes amid a dispute over safety issues.
When Chicago Public Schools fully opened its doors to all students this fall — after about 18 months of remote and hybrid learning – the return to the classroom was expected to be a year of recovery.
But the ripple effects of the ongoing pandemic presented challenges for the district as teachers and staff worked to meet student needs such as learning loss, behavior issues, and mental health challenges.
This year, Chicago – and districts across Illinois and the nation – grappled with how to protect students and staff from COVID even as they looked for ways to regain lost academic ground and coped with staff shortages and transportation woes.
In Chicago Public Schools, the country’s third largest district, officials struggled to implement an effective COVID-19 testing program. The delta and omicron surges added to the uncertainty and safety concerns, prompting a week-long standoff between the district and its teachers union.
Here are five numbers recapping some of the biggest stories across Chicago Public Schools from this school year, which ends on June 14:
10,000 students leave the district as enrollment drops
Chicago Public Schools lost 3% of its student body and saw drops among all racial groups as the pandemic exacerbated declining enrollment. CPS shrank by a total of 10,000 students, bringing the enrollment to 330,411 as of October 2021.
More than 53,700 students left the district since fall 2020. The number of students transferring to homeschooling and private schools also increased over the past two years. A higher number of new students this year did not balance out the number of students leaving.
Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a net loss of about 25,000 students between fall 2019 and spring 2021.
Latino enrollment losses outpaced those of Black students this year, which previously emptied out schools in the South and West Side in recent years. Although causes of shrinking enrollment vary, gentrification and demographic changes have been two prominent drivers of the past decade.
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The district uses enrollment as part of school-based budgeting to determine funding for schools. Union leaders and parents are concerned that the loss of students will thrust schools into cycles of fewer resources that lead to more decreases in enrollment.
Chicago’s enrollment loss is similar to the overall enrollment declines across the state. About 70,000 students, or 3.6%, left public schools statewide, according to the state board of education’s 2021 report card. The enrollment drops were highest among younger students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.
$1.26 billion in federal COVID relief money spent
As CPS finalizes its budget for the upcoming school year, critics have urged the district to keep school budgets harmless for a third year by using federal COVID relief funds.
So far, the district has spent $1.26 billion, or 45% of the federal relief funds since the first of three relief packages was approved in spring 2020. Chicago Public Schools plans to use about $730 million in the upcoming year on academics and social emotional learning supports, according to the district.
The district has used a large chunk of federal COVID dollars on existing staff, according to a Chalkbeat analysis of the data. While some principals appreciated the extra breathing room, others felt those funds weren’t being used to help schools bounce back.
CPS says it has spent relief funding on COVID mitigation measures including school-based testing as well as tutors and counselors to address mental health and academic harms.
5 days of canceled classes amid a standoff between CPS and its teachers union
In January, Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Lori Lightfoot canceled classes for five days after a majority of the Chicago Teachers Union members voted to teach remotely over safety concerns as COVID-19 cases surged across the city.
After a weeklong stalemate, district leaders and the union came to an agreement on a safety plan. The agreement included masks for teachers and students, more testing, and details for when a school or class would flip back to remote. The union’s original demands for a districtwide threshold to shut down in-person teaching and an opt-out testing program were not met.
Parents expressed frustration over another disruption to the school year, with some criticizing both the union and district for not including them in the discussion.
In early February, a judge in central Illinois granted a temporary restraining order in a lawsuit filed by a group of parents and over 170 school districts. The ruling halted emergency public health orders that established masking, vaccination, and testing protocols in schools. Chicago was one of the districts listed in the lawsuit, but continued to require masking until March 14. The move to mask-optional faced criticism from some parents and the teachers union.
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22,114 COVID cases among students and 9,125 cases among adults
COVID cases surged in the winter because of the highly transmissible omicron variant, reaching a peak in January, according to data provided by CPS. A smaller surge began toward the end of April.
In the first month of school, from Aug. 29 through Sept. 30, there were a total of 1,073 COVID cases among students. By June 8, the district had recorded a total of 22,114 cases, according to CPS data.
As of early May, CPS reported that across all district-run schools, about 44.7% of eligible students were fully vaccinated, but rates varied widely. There was lower uptake in majority Black schools on the South and West Sides and higher uptake in schools on the North Side, according to a data analysis by Chalkbeat.
In March, almost 75% of schools had less than half of their students fully vaccinated, 34% had less than a quarter of students vaccinated, and 30 schools had less than 10% vaccinated.
The district engaged in various initiatives to boost vaccination rates throughout the school year. These efforts included hosting regional hosting vaccines hubs, mobile clinics, and a Vaccine Awareness Day in addition to partnerships with the faith community.
Despite efforts to vaccinate students, issues of access such as transportation and language barriers contributed to limited success at schools in the South and West Side.
4,000 students without reliable bus service early in the school year
Chicago Public Schools struggled to provide enough busing for students requesting transportation, a problem that hit districts across the state and country. Almost two months into the school year, CPS had 4,000 students with outstanding transportation requests; more than half were students with disabilities. In October, about 3% of students without steady transportation did not go to school at the time as a result, according to the district.
At the beginning of the school year, the district only had 500 of the 1,200 bus drivers needed. School officials also attributed busing snarls to new transportation requests, enrollment changes, and route assignments by the bus companies.
Some families received stipends to provide their own transportation and the district partnered with taxi cab companies and vendors such as RideAlong to try and close the gap. The district also sought to hire more drivers throughout the year.
In January, the Board of Education adopted a resolution that prioritized transportation for students with Individualized Education Programs, medically fragile students, and those who lived in temporary housing.
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District officials said they were able to meet transportation obligations for students with disabilities in February, but at the time, 1,000 general education students were still waiting for busing assignments. CEO Pedro Martinez said Chicago Public Schools would look for alternative modes of transportation and might rely less on buses this fall.
Eileen Pomeroy is a reporting intern for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Eileen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at email@example.com.