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Chaotic day for some students returning after 5 days of canceled classes

In some buildings, particularly the city’s largest high schools, dozens of teachers were either out sick or quarantining because of an exposure, leaving classes packed into auditoriums.

Students leave William Howard Taft Freshman Academy after the first day back for CPS students after a citywide Chicago Teachers work stoppage, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Concern and optimism converged at hundreds of Chicago schools Wednesday as up to 272,000 students returned after five days of canceled classes, excited to see their friends but finding many of their classmates and teachers missing as the Omicron surge continues.

Worries prompted by the city’s record COVID-19 wave were apparent, with teachers and families alike unsure if Chicago Public Schools’ agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union brought enough assurances for improved safety measures. CTU members narrowly voted Wednesday to approve the deal.

Frustrations went beyond fears of getting the virus at school. In some buildings, particularly the city’s largest high schools, dozens of teachers were either out sick or quarantining because of an exposure, leaving classes packed into auditoriums with minimal instruction. Many other schools reported uneventful days with minimal disruptions — CPS officials said 88.7% of CTU teachers reported to schools Wednesday.

At Taft High School’s varsity campus in Norwood Park on the Northwest Side, the vast majority of classes — a total of 85 by one teacher’s count — moved to the auditorium, sometimes more than a dozen classes with hundreds of students at a time. Taft had 38 staff members absent Wednesday and only nine substitute educators filling in, a teacher said.

Taft’s Freshman Academy didn’t fare much better — 18 staff members were out and only five were replaced by subs. The two campuses combined have a little over 250 instructional staff, district records show, meaning there weren’t enough absences to cause school operations to pause under the proposed agreement between CPS and CTU even though the school’s ability to function was limited.

“In some cases, especially at the high school level, students may be moved to an auditorium if a specific class, such as physical education, can’t be offered due to a staff absence,” CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said in a statement. “However, the majority of our students who are in auditoriums are logged into remote classes and are receiving instruction from their teachers who are teleworking due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions.”

The district didn’t share Wednesday’s student attendance figures. The first day back from winter break last week, only 65.7% of CPS kids went to school — significantly lower than the first day after break in January 2019, when 92.3% showed up.

Hallway floods at Taft

The Freshman Academy, a $77 million building constructed in 2019, also had another problem: Someone broke a water supply line for a urinal in a boys’ bathroom, causing a massive rush of water and a flood on the first floor.

“A bathroom at Taft Freshman Academy was vandalized today,” CPS spokeswoman Sylvia Barragan said. “Engineers immediately shut off the water in the impacted area on the first floor. Taft engineers and custodial staff have cleaned the area. The matter is under investigation.”

Videos showed students running through a strong gush of water, the floor beginning to flood.

Several students after dismissal of class said the burst pipe had them stuck in class for about 30 minutes longer during third period as school staff tried to stop the flow of water. They walked over puddles on the first floor as they made their way to the next period.

“I think everyone is just frustrated right now and I don’t know why we had to come to school today. It should’ve just been remote for like the next two weeks,” a 14-year-old student said. “It’s been pretty chaotic this whole year. It seems like there is something every day.”

The student, who asked not to be named, said many of his classes featured an instructor teaching remotely.

“We’re basically with the teacher on the computer in class,” he said. “We should’ve just been at home where we would’ve been safe it this was the case. We are just risking our life at this point for what reason?”

Kids head to school — then return home

At Jordan Community Elementary in Rogers Park, Derrontae Gonzalez’s two kids were learning remotely Wednesday because of confirmed COVID-19 cases in their classes — but she said she didn’t find out until she went to drop them off at the school in the morning. They ended up returning home.

“I understand why the teachers did it, they got their own families, they got to take precautions as well,” said Gonzalez, 31.

“But it’s difficult because my 5-year-old son has a learning disability and it’s been a struggle for him to be home,” she said. “For my 12-year-old daughter, it hasn’t been as big a deal.”

Gonzalez said she’s comfortable sending her kids to school, where she feels they’re safe.

“I’m not concerned. I think the school takes precautions to make sure kids are safe. And I make sure my kids have masks.”

Students return to Roberto Clemente High School on Wednesday.
Students fill the lobby outside Roberto Clemente Community Academy in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood on the first day back to school after a week off due to the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools’ negotiations over whether it is safe to bring students and staff back in person amid an unprecedented COVID-19 Omicron surge, Wednesday morning, Jan. 12, 2022.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Concern, optimism at Clemente H.S.

As she walked into Roberto Clemente High School in Humboldt Park, freshman Trinity Washington said, for the moment at least, concern was overtaking optimism.

“I feel like everyone should just go home and stay virtual because it feels like everyone in our building is just getting sick and sick and sick,” she said.

Washington, who admitted she hasn’t always been following mask rules at school, said the time off and the recent hospitalization of a school dean who was placed on a ventilator have caused her to change her ways.

“I was like, ‘Oh no, this is serious,’” she said.

Fellow freshman Janae McDonald said she’s happy to be back. “I like being in school. It’s fun. I don’t want to be home all day.”

Both said they supported the actions of their educators in the CTU.

Joshua Lopez, a senior, said he, too, supports his teachers.

“I am a bit worried because me and my family did get COVID before and someone in the family was in severe condition, so I am going to support the teachers,” Lopez said. “But I don’t mind coming back to school. I mean, I know it’s kind of dangerous, too, but at least I get to see my friends.”