After months of arguing about hand sanitizers, positivity rates, air purifiers and the like, a sense of normalcy returned to the city’s public schools Thursday — at least from the outside — as parents clutching mittened hands led their children up snow-dusted steps and back to the classroom.
“I’m kind of scared, but at the same time, he needs to be in school instead of on the computer,” said Eboni Johnson, walking her preschooler, Ashton, to William H. Brown Elementary School on the Near West Side. “He needs to be with other kids. He’s an only child. He needs to have hands-on with his learning.”
She worried about Ashton getting sick — something she planned to tackle with both a spiritual and a practical approach.
“I’ve got to pray and keep him clean,” she said.
The first of what could be up to 67,000 preschool through eighth-grade students trickled back into schools Thursday. Relief, some fear and simple joy accompanied those trips.
The first to return were prekindergarten, special education cluster programs and their teachers. The return comes after the Chicago Teachers Union earlier this week approved Chicago Public Schools’ plan to return to in-person learning.
Allison DeBoer, who leads the pre-K class at Disney II Magnet School in Old Irving Park, said five of her classroom’s 15 kids showed up for in-person learning Thursday. She was to tend to those students as well as teach the other 10 online.
“As a teacher, I feel like I’m ready to be back,” said DeBoer, noting she’d been vaccinated. “But as a parent of three CPS students, they’re staying home till next year. I’m not sending them back.”
Other CPS staff are on the path to get shots, too. CPS on Wednesday showed off a large vaccination site at Roberto Clemente High School in Ukrainian Village. The deal with the union calls for 1,500 shots to be provided every week to CTU members.
High schools next?
After welcoming pre-K and special ed students back to William H. Brown, CPS CEO Janice Jackson said the next major focus is to get high school students back in the classroom. They have been learning remotely for nearly a year.
“I’ve received countless emails, [voicemails] and everything else from parents asking, ‘When will high school students be able to return?’ And one of the things we’ve committed to is using the framework that we have with CTU in this agreement to reopen our high schools,” Jackson said.
If the phased-in return of students goes smoothly, Jackson said she is confident that the overwhelming majority of parents who have chosen to keep their children home and learning remotely will feel safe to choose the in-person option during the fourth quarter, which starts in April.
The opt-in process for the fourth quarter will be announced in the coming weeks, she said.
“Many parents have said, ‘We’ll send ’em back when you figure it out.’ Well, we’ve figured it out,” the schools CEO said.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward includes William H. Brown, thanked Lightfoot for “staying steady” while facing the possibility of a second teachers strike.
On a day she hoped would mark the beginning of a “healing process” for students and their parents, Lightfoot accused the teachers union of fear-mongering that drove down the percentage of parents who felt safe enough to send their children back to the classroom.
“I know there’s been a lot of misinformation put out there. And I would frankly call it propaganda. It’s the worst thing to me to play upon peoples’ fears by whipping them up with falsities and things that absolutely are gonna undermine peoples’ confidence in our ability to recover from this pandemic. And unfortunately, we saw a lot of that propagandizing that was completely untethered from the facts,” the mayor said.
Lissette Cardona ushered her daughter, Kamila, who just turned 5, into Disney II Magnet School and was thankful because she was running short of things to do at home.
Cardona’s daughter returned to in-person learning in January, an arrangement that crumbled during CTU and CPS negotiations. It was “disheartening and confusing and hard to explain to my daughter,” she said.
“I love school and seeing friends. I like to play,” Kamila said.
Another parent said having kids in a brick-and-mortar school once again from 8:30 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. was a godsend.
Amilcar Marquez was concerned but also happy for his 4-year-old daughter, Isabella.
“I feel worried because the virus is complicated but for her, it’s necessary. She wants to go to school and spend time with her friends and the teacher,” he said.