Parents jittery, optimistic as CPS resumes full in-person learning for 1st time in 17 months

“I’m just eager for them to get in, get their education,” said on parent “I feel like they learn a lot better in person.”

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Students wait in line as they return to school on the first day of classes at Volta Elementary School Monday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Children across the city returned to Chicago Public Schools Monday — with parents both jittery and cautiously optimistic that the pandemic wouldn’t derail hopes for a new school year.

As students returned to full classrooms for the first time in more than 17 months, though, they are likely headed into another unpredictable year as most restrictions on capacity and social distancing have been removed even as a more contagious form of the coronavirus has led to a spike in cases citywide and most school-aged children are unvaccinated.

Still, the excitement was evident at schools across the city, including at Courtenay Language Arts Elementary School in Uptown, where Mayor Lori Lightfoot greeted giddy and sleepy-looking kids.

“Happy first day! Welcome back to school,” she said, posing for selfies and chatting with school staff and parents.

One of those parents, Joniqua Sanders, was just glad the school year has finally begun.

“I’m just eager for them to get in, get their education,” said Sanders, accompanying her two 4-year-old daughters. “I feel like they learn a lot better in person.”

Sanders said she was not particularly concerned about the impact of the pandemic at school.

“Here at Courtenay, they’ve let us know they have everything under control,” Sanders said. “I’m very confident they will take care of our kids.”

‘A lot of mixed emotions’

A few miles away, as Kiersten Solis surveyed hundreds of kids pouring into Alessandro Volta Elementary School in Albany Park, she said she had “a lot of mixed emotions.”

The nurse practitioner and parent of a first- and a second-grader said: “I’m really excited for them, and it’s time they get back and meet their friends and socialize and get into the classrooms with their teacher. But I’m also really, really nervous. There are a lot of kids.”

Solis said that when she dropped off schools supplies last week, the classrooms were “packed. There were desks right next to each other.”

She said there’s a shortage of teachers at Volta this year, meaning some grades have had to combine in the same classroom. Still, she said she’s hoping for an uneventful year.

“The boys need to get used to what a normal year looks like,” she said.

Speaking to reporters later at Ombudsman Chicago South, an alternative school in Chicago Lawn, Lightfoot said the start of the school year is “one of my favorite days of the year.

“Throughout this morning I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing students’ eyes light up with excitement as they reunite with their friends and favorite teachers, and show off their awesome back-to-school outfits and backpacks,” the mayor said.

“The last two school years have been very challenging for CPS, for everyone concerned. ... We have to make this one count. [The past] 17 months have been unlike any other that we’ve experienced, and that fact goes double for our young people.”

CPS CEO: Kids need to learn how to be in school

CPS Interim CEO José Torres noted it’s been two years since a full first day of school, and that younger students in particular would take time to adjust.

“We were in a second grade class, and it’s very apparent that these students need to learn how to be in school,” he said.

Asked how past issues of overcrowded schools might be addressed as the district returns to full-time in-person learning during the pandemic, Torres said, “Sometimes there’s not much we can do. We’re following the CDC’s three feet [of social distancing] where possible. And universal masking is our best defense along with the other mitigation factors.”

Indeed, a video from inside Taft High School Monday showed a packed hallway during a passing period reminiscent of schools pre-pandemic.

1st day of high school — as a sophomore

Despite the underlying anxiety about rising coronavirus cases, the scene outside Gage Park High School on the South Side was like any other year. Younger students sprinted to the door, worried about missing their first class. And upperclassmen strolled outside, catching up with friends. Parents waited in their cars to see their children make it through the line and into the school.

Monday was Daisy Ramos’ son’s first day of in-person school in a year and a half — and his first ever day attending classes inside a high school. He stayed home from Gage Park High School on the South Side throughout all of last year in favor of remote learning. This year, however, CPS is only offering remote learning for students with complex medical conditions.

Still, Ramos said her son woke up early Monday to get back into a morning routine.

Asked if she was worried about COVID-19, Ramos said “a little just because of the way it’s spreading” with the Delta variant. She also has safety concerns about her son’s walk to school.

When Ramos and her son got to Gage Park on Monday, a few dozen students were still lined up outside waiting to get in, some until 9:30 a.m., half an hour after the first bell.

In addition to concerns over COVID, CPS welcomed kids back before Labor Day for the first time in nearly a decade — which could have an impact on attendance this week. Previous attempts at starting the school year earlier were abandoned when many students didn’t show up.

CPS officials said they likely wouldn’t release attendance figures until next week. “We are committed to providing accurate, timely and transparent data and will share it with you as soon as possible,” a spokesman said in an email.

Transportation is already causing anxiety for some families. The start of any school year is usually fraught with bus problems as drivers figure out new routes and families adjust to different schedules. But this year, a shortage of bus drivers is affecting districts nationwide — and parents are frustrated that they received very little notice ahead of this week’s return.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said the district already had a shortage before last week and planned accordingly, but then 73 drivers resigned Friday, with a total of 10% quitting since the start of last week. The district now has 770 drivers — about 500 fewer than what’s needed, she said.

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