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Coats, hats and masks: First CPS students return to new version of school, under protest by teachers

Some 6,000 preschool and special education students and 4,300 teachers and staff are expected to be in classrooms to start the week.

A preschool student gets his temperature checked Monday morning as he walks into Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side.
A preschool student gets his temperature checked Monday morning as he walks into Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Young kids bundled in winter coats, hats and gloves held their parents’ hands as they walked into school.

For a few moments Monday morning, Chicago Public Schools resembled normal times at a handful of buildings around the city.

But as thousands of students went back to their classrooms for the first time during the pandemic, a step that could begin a return to normalcy for many, another reality met them on the inside.

Masks and social distancing replaced the familiar atmosphere children are used to finding in their schools, while most pre-kindergarten students likely experienced school for the first time in these pandemic conditions.

Some 6,000 preschoolers and special education students with complex disabilities were expected to be in classrooms to start the week, representing a fraction of the 77,000 children who are set to take part in the city’s phased-in resumption of in-person learning. Attendance figures won’t be released until next week, officials said.

CPS ordered about 3,800 teachers and staff back to schools Monday, and 2,900 — about 76% — showed up. There were 678 employees with unexcused absences, among them 145 who didn’t report in-person last week or Monday and will be marked “AWOL,” meaning they’ll no longer be paid or have access to email, CPS said. An additional 125 accommodations have been granted in the past week.

Thousands of teachers and families, meanwhile, continue to believe the resumption of in-person learning is coming too soon as coronavirus infections continue to spread.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which has gone all out in trying to delay the return, organized several demonstrations around the city.

At Suder Montessori Magnet School on the Near West Side, fear, hope and uncertainty all were present as teachers and children returned.

“I don’t know how I feel right now,” teacher Celine Guerrero said. “I really don’t have any words. I want to be here for my students, but I also have three young children at home and I’m afraid to go home later.”

She said she’s done her best to get her classroom clean and otherwise ready, with the help of her teaching assistant.

“I’m torn, I’m just very torn,” Guerrero said.

Gina Lee, who was bringing her son Jayce, 6, back to school, said she, too, was torn.

“I’m very concerned with the numbers of COVID cases, but I also am a teacher who has to report back today,” she said. “I’m not feeling too happy about it, but I know he is excited to be back in school.”

Parent Tamara Walker said she did a lot of research before agreeing to bring back her son, Noah. She said she’s been impressed with the level of teacher and school preparation in anticipation of the return of students.

“So they’ve been extremely prepared; that being said, we are still nervous,” she said. “He has a mask and backup mask. So we’re obviously praying for the best. It’s a better solution than the at-home learning has been.”

Some teachers at Suder set up to work outside the school in solidarity with their pre-K colleagues who returned to their classrooms Monday.

At Whittier Elementary in Pilsen, parents picketed outside the school to protest the district’s decision to reopen when infection rates are still high. They were joined by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th).

Teachers at Nathan Davis Elementary School in the Brighton Park neighborhood who spoke to reporters said they were being forced back into school under a plan that is both “reckless” and “full of holes.”

Kate O’Rourke, a bilingual pre-K special education teacher, said she had to return to school even though no students planned to attend in person. Among other things, she said, school air purifiers are inadequate for the size of the classrooms.

“This is CPS’ fault,” O’Rourke said. “It’s not our school’s fault. Our principal and administrators worked day and night to get things organized to meet CPS’ guidelines, but those guidelines are confusing and full of holes.”

‘We started school today successfully’

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson visited Dawes Elementary in Ashburn to start the day. At a news conference, Lightfoot touted the school’s preparedness and COVID-19 mitigation protocols.

Jackson wouldn’t reveal teacher attendance, saying those figures will be shared “later this week.” A CPS spokeswoman said student attendance likely wouldn’t be available until next week.

“We need to focus on the fact that a majority of our teachers are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. And we are incredibly thankful and grateful to them for their professionalism and, more importantly, their commitment to children,” Jackson said.

“The purpose right now and the focus for me today is not on any resistance but on making sure we can educate our kids. We started school today successfully.”

What about those teachers who refused to show up in their classrooms? Many of them are afraid of being deprived of their paychecks and locked out of their CPS email accounts.

“Any teacher who will be denied access to their Google [account] or pay — they have had several conversations and warnings and reminders and opportunities to explain why they aren’t at work. We’ve gone above and beyond,” Jackson said.

“Anyone who still has a pending accommodation, we’re working through that. That’s a separate situation. We are not forcing anyone to do anything except honor the contract.”

Sandra Mesa, a library teacher at Hanson Park Elementary School, heads home after the first day of in-person learning in Chicago, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

More staff than students

At Hanson Park Elementary School on the Northwest Side, teachers and staff outnumbered the students leaving the building Monday afternoon.

“Our parents are freaked about COVID, especially in Belmont Cragin where the numbers are very high,” said Sandra Mesa, a library teacher.

Overall, school administrators worked to present the safest working environment possible, she said.

“Our principal hired extra people to clean and we see them around sanitizing. We were given three masks, and we were given a tub of sanitizing wipes,” Mesa said.

Still, Mesa wishes the district held off on reopening.

“This virus is tricky because we can do everything right and it takes just one person or student, that is not showing any symptoms, to slip up and spread it on accident,” Mesa said. “I would rather, for the time being, teach from home.”