Tashi Hamilton kissed her son three times and still couldn’t quite pull herself away.
“I’m always nervous the first day of school. I just want to make sure he goes to the right places and does the right things,” Hamilton said as she dropped off her 7-year-old son Emory at Willa Cather Elementary on Monday in the East Garfield Park neighborhood.
Under a cloudless sky, children wearing new sneakers and carrying backpacks filled with freshly sharpened pencils and hand sanitizer streamed into school for what they hope will be an unremarkable year after months and months of COVID-19-related chaos.
Chicago Public Schools’ 330,000 students were due back in classrooms Monday after a 68-day break, the district’s shortest summer in modern memory. School is starting two weeks early, rather than the typical day after Labor Day.
“I’m actually OK with it,” said Que’Tonya Patton, who has two kids at Cather, ages 10 and 7. “I voted for the school year to start early so they can get out early. I like to do stuff. In the summer, I’ll be waiting so we can get out and explore the world.”
Areli Martinez has two sons, ages 6 and 11, at Pickard Elementary at 2301 W. 21st Place. She said her kids were excited to head to school and it was the right time despite a short summer.
“I think it’s good so they don’t forget what they learned from last year,” Martinez said.
‘When our students are successful, our city is successful’
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she felt the energy across the city as she traveled from one school to another and saw “excited students, parents, principals, teachers and staff.”
“The first day of school has got to be one of my favorite days of the year,” the mayor said at a back-to-school news conference at Excel Academy of South Shore, an options school for teenagers who have fallen behind academically.
“Know that we will always support you and be with you through every step of the way, from the first day of class to graduation and beyond,” Lightfoot said. “When our students are successful, our city is successful.
“Even though the past couple years have been tough on all of us, and especially our young people, we have a lot to be grateful and thankful for.”
COVID-19 is far less of a worry than when schools opened last year. The district has kept many of last year’s virus protocols, but quarantines will largely be limited to those who are sick and masks, for the most part, are optional although encouraged.
Kathleen Valente, principal of Barnard Elementary in East Beverly, said her worries about the virus have waned a bit and she’s ready to return to simple pleasures that caused stress the past two years, like welcoming parents back into the building.
“We’re feeling more confident about being healthy and safe in school,” Valente said. “I think we can go back to not feeling weird about giving high-fives, doing some of those simple human interactions that you do with people.
“We can open up the building more and become more of a community base again.”
Hamilton, the Cather mother, said her son is fully vaccinated and “people are not as scared,” but the right precautions need to be taken.
“More people are vaccinated. We actually know the symptoms,” she said. “In crowds, we know to mask up. People had all summer to be unmasked. Now it’s time to mask up.”
Hoping for a year that feels like normal
Leeanie Revera, the youngest of six siblings who went through CPS, was walking into her first day of eighth grade Monday excited to learn new lessons.
“And since I’m gonna graduate, I’m gonna sign up for high school. I’m hoping that I can get into a nice high school,” Leeanie said.
She said she feels a lot of pressure to get into a good school and wants to attend either Benito Juarez High School or Chicago Bulls College Prep.
Leeanie wasn’t overly worried about the virus and had hopes this year will feel more like normal.
“I’m hoping for really good teachers that are very joyful,” she said. “But I’m also really nervous today ’cause it’s a new year for eighth grade. And it’s my first time being really nervous like this.”
Ryan Harvey has four kids at Cather. He’s hopeful for a better school year, too, but he still has an eye on the virus. None of his children are vaccinated.
“I am worried about COVID,” he said. “It was a tough issue last year; we got through it, though.
“I don’t believe in [the vaccine]. It’s religious beliefs and also I feel like I don’t want something that I wouldn’t take [put] into my kids,” he said.
CPS’ vaccination efforts are continuing this year with community events for students and staff to get shots in arms and educate families on the extremely safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. But a recent WBEZ report showed few students got shots over the summer, and at district-run, non-charter schools, the vaccination rate stands at about 54%. About 17,000 students who had one dose of vaccine at the end of school did not get a second over the summer.
Busing problems remain
District officials also have eyes on other problems from last year, such as transportation. Some parents of special education students in particular are concerned about two-hour bus rides in the mornings and afternoons. School district CEO Pedro Martinez acknowledged Monday that some 20% of bus routes are over an hour.
“We do have some long routes,” he said at the press conference with Lightfoot, promising to examine about 2-3% of routes that have the longest duration, closer to two hours.
“They are long,” Martinez said. “We are looking at those routes. The challenge is we’ve brought in so many children, and that’s extended the routes.”
He said driver wages have been increased to avoid last year’s labor shortage, and all kids who have requested rides so far have received routes. Some parents have opted for a $500 stipend to take their kids to school themselves.
CPS is also dealing with a muted teacher shortage compared to other districts, finding it easier to fill classroom positions but not necessarily all the new jobs officials added to support kids through pandemic-era academic struggles.
Martinez said CPS is starting with about 170 more teachers than last year and is in the process of onboarding another 130. But there are still around 900 vacant positions of all sorts after new ones were opened up this year and remain unfilled.
As those issues are sorted out and new ones inevitably develop at the start of the year, Martinez declared “from today onward, we’ll be working tireless to make sure this is not only a strong recovery year, but one of our strongest ever in CPS’ history.
“I know that we’re going to get a lot of questions on some of the challenges we have,” Martinez said. “This is the first day. The work is going to continue.”
District officials declined to release attendance figures from the first day of school.
Helping kids adjust back to in-school learning
Before the news conference, Lightfoot and Martinez visited Falconer Elementary in Belmont Cragin, where the mayor asked Principal James Cosme how long he’d been preparing for the first day.
“Since the last day of last year,” he responded to laughs.
Cosme said his focus has been on improving the school’s social emotional learning program to help students and parents feel more comfortable going back to school. Many schools last year found that students had a hard time adjusting to in-person school after learning at home for a year and a half, and that showed in their behavior.
Like many schools in the neighborhood, Falconer lost about 70 students last year and saw a decrease in funding. But because CPS padded the school budgets with a few extra positions, it didn’t lose teachers or staff. The school also got a new playground.
“Now when our kids go out for recess and for gym they have a playground to play on,” Cosme said. “Just another way to get the kids back at the school and be comfortable.”
Stefano Esposito and Nader Issa are reporters for the Sun-Times. Nereida Moreno and Sarah Karp cover education for WBEZ.