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With as few as 1 student in a classroom, CPS high schoolers return to unusually empty buildings but familiar faces

“It’s just been nice to see everyone,” a student at Senn High School in Edgewater said.

IB History teacher Joseph Lev speaks to students at Nicholas Senn High School in the Edgewater neighborhood, Friday afternoon, April 23, 2021.
IB History teacher Joseph Lev speaks to students at Nicholas Senn High School on Friday afternoon.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Sophia Bigg thrived in remote classes the past year, where she found it easy to stay organized, didn’t mind the time alone and was able to stay focused on her work.

But she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to see her teachers again, so Bigg, 17, chose to return to in-person classes for the last few weeks of her junior year at Senn High School in Edgewater.

“One of my favorite parts of school is engaging with my teachers, and I like being able to walk around the school because I think it’s really beautiful,” she said.

Virtual learning was a little tougher for 15-year-old Miles Chong, a self-described extrovert who loves to be around his friends — which made his decision to head back to Senn much simpler.

“I’m excited to come back because I’m able to be with all my peers, and I think it also makes the learning environment a lot better when you’re around other people,” he said.

Muhammad Khan, 19, is a few weeks away from AP exams with a college decision looming as he nears the end of his senior year. So he decided he needed to go back to his classrooms to focus on his studies.

“It’s just been nice to see everyone,” Khan said.

Bigg, Chong and Khan were three of an estimated couple hundred students at Senn on Friday, their first day back in over a year. About one-third of the North Side school’s 1,500 students returned, while the rest are still remote.

Khan said most of his friends who didn’t come back were still worried about COVID-19 or hadn’t yet been vaccinated. Khan and Bigg got their shots this week, while Chong has to wait until the summer when he turns 16 — and all three were comfortable with the school’s precautions.

Senn Principal Mary Beck said some students who originally opted to return have changed their minds in the past week or two, so the school gave others who stayed remote until the end of the day Friday to opt to take their place.

Those who returned were generally happy to be back even though school felt somewhat unfamiliar.

Some classes had as few as one student in person. There were half as many desks in classrooms, and they were spaced out across the room. Mid-day passing periods felt strangely empty without the normal high school commotion. Lockers were off limits, as were drinking fountains, and stairwells were marked off for one-way traffic.

Senn is using the same schedule model as most high schools, with in-person students split into Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday cohorts and teachers working with virtual and in-person students at the same time.

In an IB history class, a projector and speaker at the front of the room showed the kids who were at home, while teacher Joseph Lev and five students sat at their laptops in class. Lev took a few minutes to split the class into groups for a project.

Beck said teachers have told her simultaneous instruction has been tough, but they’re using the first week as a test run to figure out what works and what doesn’t while sharing ideas with each other and listening to students’ suggestions to improve.

“Just like last year when we first left and then set up our school year this year, it took them a week or so to develop their systems,” Beck said. “But once they got them, they’re now able to improve upon those systems.”