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Students and teachers bring energy to CPS’ new school year despite remote learning challenges

“I feel like I’m producing the Emmys or something,” a drama teacher said as she kicked off CPS’ first day of fall classes.

A teacher looks at her laptop at Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood on the first day back to school, Tuesday morning.
A teacher looks at her laptop at Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood on the first day back to school, Tuesday morning.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Technology worries and remote learning anxiety aside, many Chicago Public Schools students and teachers were excited to get the new school year started Tuesday.

There were still questions to be answered, such as how many children are without quality internet, and important topics to address in the coronavirus pandemic and the summer of racial justice protests.

Nonetheless, Nina Hike, a chemistry teacher at Westinghouse College Prep, said she was energized for the start of the year despite her nerves about the internet connection potentially cutting out during a class.

Holding up a laboratory flask, Hike said she’s looking forward to the unique dynamic of teaching students in their homes “and being able to connect the chemistry in their homes that they see on a regular basis and also to talk to their families about chemistry.”

“In the classroom it’s easy to kind of gauge the student energy,” Hike said during a virtual meeting hosted by the Chicago Teachers Union. “But I feel like my energy is going to come through the computer screen. I even bought little beakers and flasks and stuff so that I can do demos and things of that nature to engage students.”

Lightfoot: ‘Not leaving anybody behind’

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office and CPS officials have said access to computers is not expected to be the problem it was earlier this year, after 128,000 devices were distributed in the spring with another 17,000 handed out ahead of this school year.

Jia Ming, a sophomore, and her mother, Run Lan, pick up textbooks at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on the first day back to school Tuesday morning.
Jia Ming, a sophomore, and her mother, Run Lan, pick up textbooks at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on the first day back to school Tuesday morning.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Officials also announced the “Chicago Connected” program in June, pledging to put free, high-speed internet into the homes of 100,000 CPS students who lacked reliable broadband access. A little over two months later, the families of 24,000 kids have signed up for the program, while the rest could still be without quality internet to start the school year.

CPS is also once again expanding its free meal program — which since schools closed in the spring has passed out 22 million meals — with 450 sites available every weekday for families to pick up food.

“We are not leaving anybody behind this year,” the mayor said at a Tuesday news conference at King Elementary in Englewood. “We want to make sure that every single student in CPS has the same opportunity to have a fulfilling and nurturing learning experience as they would if they were physically in the classroom.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot claps as Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson rings a bell at Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood on the first day back to school Tuesday morning, Sept. 8, 2020.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot claps as Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson rings a bell at Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood on the first day back to school Tuesday morning, Sept. 8, 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Schools chief Janice Jackson, who joined Lightfoot at the school, said she’s confident this can be a successful year “despite some of the challenges that we face in remote learning.

“I had a lot of questions when I woke up this morning about what this school year was going to look like, how do you get the excitement of the first day, how do you package that in a remote environment,” Jackson said

“It’s hard walking through a school and not hearing kids’ voices in the hallway. But when we look on the screens ... we see that our teachers have still captured that moment. There’s a lot of excitement and I have no doubt that this is going to be a fantastic year.”

Hike, the chemistry teacher, said teachers also have to address racism in their classes — “that was the other pandemic that came to the foreground during the COVID crisis,” she said, with a Black Lives Matter flag hanging in the background of her room. “Hopefully we can all navigate that together as teachers and also in the communities. That’s something else that we definitely have to be thinking about today.”

Teacher on students: ‘I missed them’

Lauren Kullman, a drama teacher at Nightingale Elementary in Gage Park, said one of her chief concerns is checking how students are doing during the pandemic after not seeing many kids for six months. Gage Park is among the hardest-hit communities in the state by COVID-19 and in May suffered the loss of a 12-year-old boy, the youngest coronavirus death in the state at the time.

Teachers Nina Hike (bottom left) and Lauren Kullman (top middle) are excited for the start of the new school year.
Teachers Nina Hike (bottom left) and Lauren Kullman (top middle) are excited for the start of the new school year.
Chicago Teachers Union screenshot

“I really don’t know how my families are,” Kullman said. “I don’t know if people lost people. I don’t know where they are with food insecurity and just all kinds of emotional health. And that’s going to be my driving force for as long as I need it to be.”

Kullman, with the type of energy only a teacher could have before 8 a.m., said she was raring to get logged on.

“I have got like four monitors all around me, I feel like I’m producing the Emmys or something,” she said. “I’m a drama teacher. I bring energy that is kind of above and beyond and sort of embarrassing for my students. But our whole goal is to be brave and be bold.

“My energy is going to be through the roof when I see the kids. If they turn on their camera I’m going to cry because I’ve missed them,” Kullman said. “We’re going to go for it. We’re going to do it.”

A teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood facilitates an online class on the first day back to school Tuesday morning.
A teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood facilitates an online class on the first day back to school Tuesday morning.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times