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Competitive high schools to see greatest numbers of students return Monday

About 26,000 high school students are expected back for in-person learning — about a third of students at most schools. Along with elementary kids, the day will see the most students in Chicago schools in 11 months.

Jones College Prep will see a majority of its students return for the 4th academic quarter for the first time in nearly a year.
Sun-Times files

A little less than half of Chicago Public Schools students are anticipated to return to classrooms Monday for the start of the fourth academic quarter, when for the first time in 13 months all 515 non-charter schools — including high schools — will be open for in-person learning.

With 36% of high schoolers and nearly half of elementary school students planning to return, CPS could have up to 44% of its 279,000 students at non-charter schools back in classrooms this week. Those 122,000 students would be by far the most since the start of the pandemic, although the 157,000 continuing remotely still represents a number larger than all but 15 districts in the nation.

About 26,000 high school students opted to return to in-person learning, and the district said Friday they are all still expected back. Only three schools — all selective enrollment — will see a majority return, while half of the district’s 93 schools will welcome about one-third of students.

If they do all show up, that would be in contrast to the reopening of elementary schools in March, when 17,000 students backed out after opting in.

But for those that do go back, it will mark a return to a familiar space — even if things look vastly different than pre-pandemic days.

“This milestone has been more than a year in the making and is truly a cause for celebration,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson and district education chief LaTanya McDade said in an email to families Friday.

“We thank our partners at the Chicago Teachers Union for working with the district to reach an agreement that will allow us to safely reopen our schools,” they wrote. “We understand, however, that moving past the pandemic will require even more substantial resources, and we look forward to sharing the district’s plan to ensure all students, staff, and families have what they need to heal from the past year and move forward toward a brighter future.”

District officials, principals and some teachers have said this last academic quarter will make for a good test run for next fall and offers an opportunity to see what does and doesn’t work as the pandemic — hopefully — winds down.

Selective enrollment high schools expect largest turnout

Of the city’s 11 selective enrollment high schools, three are expecting a majority of their students back in classrooms: Payton, Jones and Whitney Young. Among those prestigious schools, those with more white students than any other race, tended to have more students back than those with mostly Black or Hispanic students, district records show.

Jones, Whitney Young, Lane Tech and Taft are the only schools with more than 1,000 students returning. Lane is expecting 2,100 back, and though that’s still less than half its students, it means more than 1,000 children will be in the building at the same time any given day with students split into Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday cohorts.

“I can’t express the level of excitement I am feeling personally in finally having students back in the building on Monday!” Payton Principal Melissa Resh said in an email to families. “We’re not all going to be together yet, and this version of school will be missing some of what makes Payton feel like home, but it is a positive step toward our full return. To those students who are continuing to learn from home, please know I carry you in my heart.”

She acknowledged that teachers will be getting accustomed to teaching kids in person and remotely simultaneously, so students should “expect some clunkiness next week. This is a first for all of us and there are bound to be hiccups.” But she said everyone was “thrilled” to be able to again be able to engage students inside and outside of the building.

Fewer students on South, West sides

Meanwhile, 49 district-run high schools are anticipating no more than one-third of their students in person Monday, according to CPS records. That includes schools like Englewood STEM, Curie and Hancock, mirroring a trend that saw communities hardest hit by the pandemic slow to send their children back to school.

Cassandra Kaczocha, a mother of three students at Boone Elementary in West Ridge, said her eighth grade son is a diverse learner and has underlying conditions that make him more vulnerable to COVID-19. She isn’t comfortable sending him back to school until he’s vaccinated and is pushing with the parent group Raise Your Hand for improvements to virtual learning until they’re ready to return.

“Remote learning’s not working for him, it’s not working for any of us. We’re all struggling,” Kaczocha said. “[But] we can’t go back.”

An agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union paved the way for Monday’s return after weeks of low-profile negotiations that despite a few snags never appeared nearly as contentious as February’s K-8 bargaining.

The district’s deal with the union allows students at 36 schools to attend four days each week because of low enrollment totals or opt-in numbers. Children at another 53 schools will be in person two days every week.

With about two months left in the school year, the number of in-person days for high schoolers will range from 18 to 37. That’s out of 178 school days.