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Here’s what the 1st day back was like at one CPS school

About 6,000 kids went back to Chicago Public Schools classrooms Monday for the first time in 300 days, but it wasn’t school as usual for those students or their teachers.

Preschool students listen as their teacher reads a story Monday morning at Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side.
Preschool students listen as their teacher reads a story Monday at Dawes Elementary School at 3810 W. 81st Pl. on the Southwest Side. Monday was the first day of in-person learning for preschoolers and special education students with complex disabilities in Chicago Public Schools.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A few students to a room. Drinking fountains covered in plastic. Spots on the floor to mark story-time seats. A sick room for those with virus symptoms.

About 6,000 kids went back to Chicago Public Schools classrooms Monday for the first time in 300 days, but it wasn’t school as usual for those students or their teachers.

The first sign of pandemic schooling came right at the door, when parents dropped off their little ones at Dawes Elementary in Ashburn. Temperature checks were taken in the hallway, before students entered the classrooms.

“Normally, we have a lot of tears,” said Dawes principal Mary Dixon. “We have the kids that are on the mom’s leg, and we let parents bring their child the first day into the classroom. Now they had to stand outside, call the child in, take the temperature and give the mom the OK to leave. So that was different, but they handled it.”

From there, students were sent to wash their hands. Teachers in one classroom squeezed soap into each student’s hands and walked them through how to properly scrub.

Inside, it was clear Dawes staff had put time into readying the building for their students — with the caveat that Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson made a publicized visit to the school in the morning, certainly meaning extra effort was made to follow all protocols in front of news reporters and photographers who were invited to attend.

At breakfast, each student sat at their own desk with plexiglass barriers on the outer edges of the desk. Seated about six feet apart, the kids took off their masks and ate at their desks — a part of the day that parents have worried could be a vulnerability in CPS’ reopening plan.

There were as few as three students in one class and six in another, each room with two or three educators. Some teachers in the half-day preschool program taught in-person students to start the day while their colleagues taught those who remained at home, and they flipped for the second half of the day. Some full-day classes, meanwhile, featured simultaneous teaching of both virtual and in-person students. Others had two teachers in a classroom, one teaching those at home and the other with the kids in-person.

Excitement — and mask reminders

There was clear excitement from the students, many of whom were attending school for the first time in their young lives.

“I love mac and cheese so much!” a girl shouted at lunch.

After each meal, students washed their hands again and teachers wiped down every desk.

Throughout the day, especially after breakfast and lunch, teachers reminded students to keep their masks on and over their noses. In one classroom, a teacher helped a student put his mask back on, showing him the right way to do it.

At Dawes, 39 pre-K and cluster program students opted to return out of about 100 — and about 30 showed up on the first day. Another 260 of the school’s remaining 887 kindergarten through eighth grade students will be among 71,000 expected back Feb. 1.

Hand sanitizer dispensers were at the door of every classroom, as were portable ventilation units. In the so-called “care room,” however, where symptomatic students are taken to wait for their parents, it was hot and stuffy. There was a portable ventilation unit and windows, plus high-grade PPE for the adult who will supervise those children; at Dawes that will be a newly hired temporary worker or a bus aide whose job has been repurposed.

In the hallways, drinking fountains had plastic covers on them. In the bathrooms, every other sink was covered to promote social distancing.

A few teachers at Dawes expressed concerns for their own health or a family member and applied for leave that will be reviewed by CPS’ central office, Dixon said. But the staff who went back more than covered the students who opted in. Dixon decided to structure teachers’ schedules in a way that will limit movement from one classroom to another, and she asked her staff not to hang out in rooms together.

“Everyone wants to be safe, and so far so good,” Dixon said. “We’re hoping to keep it that way. We want to stay open.”