Chicago Public Schools’ kicks off post-COVID ‘recovery year’

Chicago Public Schools students are returning to classrooms Monday after a shorter-than-usual summer. The start date is one of the earliest in modern memory as the nation’s third-largest school district embarks on a “recovery year” following several COVID-19 disruptions.

The pandemic is still top of mind for many employees, parents and students. Around 100 adults and a dozen students have reported testing positive for COVID-19 since Thursday, according to CPS’ online data tracker. Those who test positive for the virus are directed to stay home for five days, no matter their vaccination status.

New this year, unvaccinated students and staff members who come in close contact with an infected person are no longer required to stay home for five days, per new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unvaccinated close contacts are asked to wear masks for 10 days after exposure. Masks are optional across the district, except in certain situations, such as the five days after an infected person returns to school.

CPS is facing other challenges besides COVID-19, including a national shortage of bus drivers and teachers. Several parents have taken to social media to complain about the length of their child’s bus route or that their child hasn’t been routed at all. Because the bus driver shortage turned into a fiasco last year, CPS said it focused on prioritizing diverse learner students whose education plans require transportation and homeless students.

This is the first time a CPS school year has begun with CEO Pedro Martinez in the top job. He said it may take the district two weeks to sort out the bus-related issues. He asked for parental patience last week at an unrelated news conference. He and Mayor Lori Lightfoot were set to welcome students back Monday to Falconer Elementary School in Belmont Cragin.

At Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School early Monday, a group of CPS Safe Passage workers wearing neon yellow vests convened for a moment before going to their respective posts. Uniformed students slowly trickled to school grounds, sharing fist bumps and quiet conversation as the sun rose in the sky.

Jenny Urbina walked her daughter into the South Side high school for the start of her freshman year. The earlier back-to-school date this year has made things “a little hectic,” but she said students need something to get their minds off the pandemic.

“(My daughter) was nervous, because she’s a first year here. So just having those conversations with her and just say, you know, ‘This is your first year here. So this determines your future — you’re not in grammar school anymore.’”

She added that she was nervous about all the students being back together with COVID still going around. Though her daughter is vaccinated, she still asks her to wear a mask. Though she has some concerns, in looking ahead to the school year, she doesn’t have any big frustrations, she said.

“I think so far, we’re just taking it day by day,” she said. “And just making sure you know, that we follow every protocol that we have, or just speak to the teachers more and just be there for the kids more. I feel like we as parents have to take the initiative to come into the school and if you have any concern, just go ahead.”

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At a Chicago Teachers Union news conference Monday outside Back of the Yards High, members raised concerns about large class sizes and staff member vacancies.

“You’re going to see class sizes inching upwards to 30, 35. Students can’t be their best selves and teachers certainly can’t under those conditions, so we’re hopeful for this school year. And we are demanding that we fill some of these critical vacancies in bilingual ed, in special education,” CTU Vice President Jackson Potter said. “Students are taking 90 minutes per way on the busing routes this year. That’s a lot. We need to pay bus drivers more to alleviate those routes. We’re here and hopeful that we can address some of these concerns in a more productive way this year.”

The union is slated to vote soon on a new COVID-19 safety agreement for the upcoming school year. The last one was reached in January to end a standoff that caused classes to be canceled for five days amid a rise in coronavirus cases. Members of CTU — which has a new president in Stacy Davis Gates — on Monday talked of the new year providing a “fresh start” with the district.

Back of the Yards High music teacher Felix Ponce said much of his focus last year was making sure there were enough instruments for his students. He expressed optimism the situation has improved for this year.

“(I’m) a little bit nervous today as I’m coming back — positive, though — and I’m hopeful that the district will definitely move diligently to fill a lot of these vacancies and then continue providing funding so we can have equitable education across the district,” Ponce said.

Check back for more updates from the first day of school in CPS.

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