Excitement, tears and masks as CPS students head back to school for 1st time during pandemic

Tens of thousands of students in kindergarten through fifth grade returned to CPS classrooms Monday.

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Students wait on the stairs as they enter school at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy at 3319 N Clifton Ave in Lakeview, Monday, March 1, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Students wait on the stairs as they enter school at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy at 3319 N Clifton Ave in Lakeview, Monday, March 1, 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Nicole Ramirez thought she’d be able to handle it, but then she saw staff at Walt Disney Magnet School swipe her 7-year-old daughter’s forehead with a thermometer.

And Ramirez started to cry.

“It’s something about everything we’ve gone through this year. Dropping her off has been really emotional for me,” said Ramirez, 40, still teary-eyed as she talked Monday morning in Uptown.

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Ramirez’s daughter was one of tens of thousands of K-5 Chicago Public Schools students who returned Monday. While more than 37,000 were expected to show up, the district did not immediately release attendance figures for the day. Another 18,500 in sixth to eighth grade are set to return next week. That’s the largest group to return since the pandemic started, although 145,000 have chosen to continue learning remotely through at least April.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot greets students at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy at 3319 N Clifton Ave in Lakeview, Monday, March 1, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot greets students at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy at 3319 N Clifton Ave in Lakeview, Monday, March 1, 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Mayor: ‘Infectious excitement’

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson kicked off the day with a visit to Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a magnet elementary school in Lake View. They struck a celebratory tone, happy to have reached a milestone they’ve long awaited.

“This morning I was lucky enough once again to experience firsthand the infectious excitement of our young people on their first day of class,” the mayor told reporters in the school auditorium. The news conference was the mayor’s first that was fully open to the media since last year. “Driving here this morning, I saw young kids skipping ahead of their parents with excitement about coming back to school.

“When schools closed a year ago, none of us thought it would be yet another year. We thought and hoped it would be weeks, then we thought it’d be months, then we thought surely by the start of the school year it would be back. But fate had another plan.”

Hawthorne is one of 32 schools in the city — out of 421 open this week — with more than half its students returning to in-person learning. It’s also one of 27 CPS schools — out of more than 640 — that are majority white. While the majority of students returning districtwide are Black or Latino, a disproportionate number of white families opted for in-person learning this term.

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Students play outside at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy at 3319 N Clifton Ave in Lakeview, Monday, March 1, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Masked recess

Later in the morning, Hawthorne classes took turns going outside for recess. Kids, wearing masks seemingly without problems, ran, jumped and skipped through a field behind the school. A boy wearing a Pikachu hat tripped and fell, then lay on the ground for a few seconds basking in the fun. When some students got too close to each other, a teacher shouted, “Spread apart! If we don’t spread apart we’re not going to be able to play.” When other students took a break and sat on a bench, their teacher told them to sit on opposite ends to keep their distance. The students complied.

Jackson said she felt “a little overwhelmed” with joy hearing children laughing and back in schools and hoped to “recapture the magic in our classrooms.”

“This is the first step on the road to normalcy, whatever the new normal will be,” Jackson said. “We are going into the recovery phase. And this is a very important phase, not just for the city as a whole, but more importantly for our children and their future.”

First-day hiccups

The day was anything but smooth sailing, though. Families and educators across the city complained about logistical issues — such as messy arrivals with parents unsure at which door to drop off their children — and health concerns — like forehead thermometers not working and air purifiers not turning on.

Another headache came via the online health screener that all students, staff and visitors are required to fill out before entering a school. With as many as 50,000 people trying to log onto the site Monday morning, the page displayed an error for some and offered slow loading times for others — prolonging a task that should take no more than 60 seconds into a 20-minute ordeal.

“It felt like we were enrolling them for the very first time,” Margaret Reed said after dropping off her stepson, a second grader at Armstrong Elementary in West Rogers Park. “This is more difficult than anything I’ve ever seen getting them into school. It was difficult, but it’s worth it if you’ve got the patience.”

Jackson said the district has “spent the last few months making sure that we’ve thought about every single scenario,” but unexpected hiccups were bound to happen.

“It’s the first day of school, and like the first day of any school year, we’re going to be troubleshooting and making sure everything is done properly for our students,” Jackson said.

Principals have also worried they could face dire staffing shortages moving forward with thousands of teachers granted work-from-home accommodations because of their own health conditions or a family member’s medical vulnerabilities. For now, schools have tried to make their plans work for in-person students without excessive disruptions to those still remote. But if teachers come down sick or have to miss a day for other reasons, replacing them won’t be that easy.

Asked about those concerns at the press conference, Jackson said “we feel very confident that our schools are ready to open.” CPS has hired about 500 of the promised 1,000 so-called “cadre” substitute teachers who could help fill in, she said, and a bit more than half of the expected 1,000 part-time, seasonal employees who would have various responsibilities around the schools.

“We have had to address individual concerns at some schools where maybe there were more accommodations than the principal anticipated, that made it so that schedules would be different than what would be ideal,” she said. “But we’re working through those one-on-one.”

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Dr. Paul Riskus stands outside of Walt Disney Magnet School at 4140 N. Marine Dr in Buena Park, Monday, March 1, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

11 separate entrances

Back at Disney, principal Paul Riskus stood outside the North Side school, greeting parents — many of whom were, perhaps not surprisingly, a little confused about which entrance to use at the sprawling concrete-and-steel campus.

Before the pandemic, kids were funneled through a single entrance into the school auditorium. On Monday, students were directed through 11 separate entrances — in an effort to social distance.

“That was a big, big planning process for us,” Riskus said a little later in the day. “I was going around this morning to make sure that was going well, and for the most part, it did go very well.”

No students arriving Monday had to be turned away because of concerns about illness, Riskus said. The principal said he was expecting about 550 children to return for in-person learning, about one-third of the school’s total. Nearly 70 % of the school’s students are Black or Latino.

Mike Tam was one of those parents dropping off his children, a third grader and a kindergartner. Tam said he had only a little hesitancy about bringing his kids back in the middle of the pandemic.

Tam said his kids have been eager to return to their classrooms, especially after seeing cousins and friends do so. He said he was also looking forward to being able to better focus on his job in IT — with fewer interruptions from his children.

“In the end, it’s for the kids,” he said. “We’re just trying to make it right for them.”

At Ogden Elementary, on the Near North Side, Lisa Ahmad said she was “super excited” to take her second grader, Guy, back to school for the first time in about a year.

“It looks like it’s very well organized, just from peeking in the classrooms,” Ahmad said.

At-home learning has been tough, in part, because Ahmad, a preschool teacher, has been back in the classroom since last fall and she’s had to rely on her 11-year-old to help monitor Guy’s activities.

“He’s an 8-year-old ditcher because he runs away from the screen. ... He ditches his class sometimes,” she said.

Melissa Wyder said dropping off her first grader Monday went very smoothly. She, too, said she’s confident in how her son’s school has prepared for returning students.

“He’s very excited to be back in the classroom,” Wyder said. “He’s looking forward to seeing other people — other than his parents.”

A student listens as Mayor Lori Lightfoot greets the class at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy at 3319 N Clifton Ave in Lakeview, Monday, March 1, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A student listens as Mayor Lori Lightfoot greets the class at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy at 3319 N Clifton Ave in Lakeview, Monday, March 1, 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

No major issues in Mount Greenwood

After the conclusion of the school day, Kate Reidy, principal of Mount Greenwood Elementary on the Far South Side, said things could not have gone smoother.

“The kids blew me away today. No one fussed. Not one child in this building had to be corrected,” she said.

Everyone on staff showed up to work and parents and kids were giddy about returning, she said.

“One father came up and said ‘I’d love to hug you but I’m afraid someone will take a picture and post it on Facebook,’” she said. “It was perfect. I wish we’d been here the whole time.”

Reidy said about 1,000 of the school’s roughly 1,200 students — which are 82% white, the second-highest at CPS —have elected to return to in-person learning two days a week. That’s the largest number of students — and percentage of the student body — returning at any CPS elementary school.

On Monday, a total of 619 kids were at the elementary school, one of the city’s largest, which is located in a community that many police officers and firefighters call home.

Making sure kids used pencils instead of pens for math class was among the biggest issues of the day, said one teacher.

“We’re not your typical school,” Reidy said. “Our biggest discipline problem is gum chewing.”

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Students leave Mt. Greenwood Elementary School at 10841 S. Homan Ave. in the Greenwood neighborhood, Monday, March 1, 2021.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

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