CPS middle school students return to classrooms: ‘It never gets old seeing kids come back to school’

CPS CEO Janice Jackson described talks with CTU about high school in-person learning as “collegial.”

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Middle school students line up to check in at Richardson Middle School at 6018 S. Karlov Ave. in West Lawn, Monday, March 8, 2021

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools reached a milestone of sorts Monday, with all elementary school grades open districtwide for in-person learning — a first since the pandemic shuttered schools statewide a year ago.

The district welcomed back an expected 18,500 sixth through eighth grade students Monday, even though most parents continued to keep their kids at home in remote learning.

“It never gets old seeing kids come back to school — some of them excited, some of them not so excited about it. But at the end of the day, we know it’s the best place for them,” said Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, speaking to reporters outside Richardson Middle School in West Lawn Monday morning.

Just before Jackson spoke, students lined up — socially distanced — outside the school, as a staff member with a laptop quizzed them about any recent sickness and out-of-state travel, among other questions.

Staff at Richardson were expecting 185 out of 1,083 students to return for the current quarter.

The students who came back Monday are on top of the estimated 37,000 K-5 students that returned already, although CPS has not yet released official attendance figures from last week. About 145,000 elementary students will continue learning remotely through at least mid-April. Starting Monday, those families have two weeks to decide whether to opt-in for the fourth quarter, representing their last chance for in-person learning this year.

The first week of K-5 in-person learning came and went with 21 positive COVID-19 cases — 17 staff and four students — at 20 schools, according to records maintained by CPS. Those diagnoses sent 86 close contacts into quarantine at 10 schools, including eight student pods. Three of those pods were at Jamieson Elementary on the Northwest Side.

To date, CPS has offered coronavirus vaccinations to about 36,400 school employees — nearly all that work in the district.

Despite principals and staff expressing concerns about potential in-person staffing shortages with about one in three teachers receiving work-at-home accommodations, Jackson said “we don’t have any reports of widespread staffing shortages” after classes resumed last week.

Asked about the status of talks to get high school students back in the classroom this school year, Jackson said: “I feel really good about the conversations we’re having with CTU now. We learned a lot about what to do and what not to do in that first go-around. ... I feel confident we’re going to get a plan, and it’s much more collegial for everyone involved.”

CPS is hosting two virtual town hall events this month on reopening. One is scheduled for high school families from 5-6:30 p.m. Wednesday and another for elementary schools will be held 5-6:30 p.m. March 16.

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