Hundreds of thousands of students returned to Chicago Public Schools’ classrooms Monday, most for the first in-person instruction since the pandemic prompted a statewide school shutdown in March 2020. Here’s a look at how it went for a sampling of parents, students and their teachers.
Maria Medina, parents of two daughters at Horace Greeley Elementary
Maria Medina was already feeling uneasy about putting her daughters on a school bus and sending them back for in-person classes Monday.
Then she found out the day before that the bus to Horace Greeley Elementary wasn’t even going to show up.
Medina’s daughters, first grader Sarai and fourth grader Rachel, were among about 2,100 Chicago Public Schools students whose families were left to scramble for transportation when drivers for CPS bus contractors quit en masse, apparently over the district’s employee and vendor vaccine mandate.
So Medina drove her daughters to their school in Lakeview from their home in the Portage Park area, a trip she said took more than an hour.
When bringing her concerns to the school principal Monday morning, she was told many parents were facing the same frustrations about transportation.
“I feel tired, and I feel disappointed,” Medina said. ” There are excuses but no solutions.”
She also has concerns about the safety measures in the school. She knows students are to be 3 feet
apart in the classroom, but she wonders if that’s enough.
“I need to see how the rooms look,” Medina said. “It doesn’t make me feel safe.”
Rachel Medina, 9, left, her sister Sarai Medina, 6, walk with their mother Maria Medina outside Chicago’s Greeley Elementary School after the first day of school Monday. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)
Medina said her immediate family has gotten through the pandemic so far without anyone getting infected. With her children now back in school, she is unsure of what can happen.
“Now, more kids are in the hospital,” Medina said. She also worries her children could bring the virus home from school to her and her husband.
She would have preferred to keep her children at home to learn. Medina believes they were both able to thrive while learning at home and is still relying on CPS to make the option of remote learning available.
“How many kids need to be infected for the schools to close?” she asked.
Caleb Jones, sixth grader, Skinner West Elementary
Caleb Jones had gone back to school for hybrid learning last spring, so he was already used to COVID-19 safety protocols and didn’t have a problem keeping his mask on all day when he started sixth grade at Skinner West Elementary Monday.
Teachers went over all that, along with the more traditional introductions, warnings against bullying and plans for the year ahead. Caleb was excited to see his friends again, and of his classes is most looking forward to biology and math.
“I felt prepared (for school). I mean, it was the first day, so we didn’t really do a lot,” the 11-year-old said. “We just got to know our teachers and what we were going to be learning this school year.”
Caleb said his classmates were good about keeping their masks on, though some removed them at recess. Some desks were pushed together to make two-person groupings, but on the whole the kids in his class of about 20 students were socially distanced, he said.
He deemed his first day “pretty good” and said “there was nothing bad about it.”
“The school day, it was pretty good, nothing was bad about it,” he said.
Caleb’s parents, Kirby and Traci Jones, dropped him off at school Monday morning. His father said Caleb did a great job with remote learning and that returning to in-person classes a couple of days a week last year provided a good balance.
Kirby Jones, right, speaks with his son, Caleb Jones, 11, as he heads to his first day of school at Skinner West Elementary School in CPS Monday. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
Traci Jones said she’s especially concerned about social distancing in classrooms. Last year students went back to school in shifts, and many stayed remote full time. She is unsure how students will maintain distance at all now that everyone is back.
“We are concerned about the health of all the kids, Caleb especially,” she said. “There are a lot of students in the classroom so that becomes a challenge. … Last year he had about 30 students in his class total, so I don’t know how it’ll be having that many kids and a teacher in a class at one time.”
CPS has done a lot to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, Traci Jones said, but there is still a lot more they could be doing, especially because many students are not old enough to receive the vaccine.
“We are dealing with a population where they’re not at the age to be vaccinated so tons of concern there,” she said before school started Monday. “But he’s excited, so we’re excited about that, so hopefully we’ll see how today goes, and take it from there.”
Alison Eichhorn, teacher, Lindblom Math and Science Academy
“Today reminded me of why I do this job,” said Alison Eichhorn, who has taught social studies at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood for seven years.
“It was really good to be back and see students,” she said, adding that hybrid learning was bad for her mental health partly because it felt like it was hard to tell whether students were “actually learning, actually there.”
Eichhorn, who is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union’s executive board, said she spent more time Monday than she would have on past first days making students understand “that they’re supported” and educating them on how to mitigate learning loss.
She ran a community-building activity in class that set goals for the year, including what habits she and students had picked up in the pandemic that they wanted to get rid of, such as procrastination.
There were hitches: Addressing a class through a mask is “really exhausting,” said Eichhorn, and students couldn’t eat or drink in class to help get them through a long day.
Eichhorn was also shocked to see water fountains on. “I was like, ‘Oh, OK!’” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Social distancing was also a problem — or as Eichhorn put it, “social distancing is not going to happen.” She said there’s not much leeway when there are 30 students in a classroom, or two grades packed into an auditorium.
Journey Lemons, freshman, Kenwood Academy
Journey Lemons started high school Monday only knowing the few people she’d met at freshman orientation. But she was undaunted by the challenge of a new school, a new year, new teachers and new classmates — even when it meant meeting everybody from behind her face mask.
“Today was quite an experience,” the Kenwood Academy freshman said after school Monday. “I had never been back to school full time with masks on. … I don’t think the masks affected anything. They were not a big bummer for me because, in the long run, masks protect us from COVID.”
Journey said she felt comfortable with the school’s safety measures, which include hand sanitizing stations around the building. The principal offered a reminder during announcements about proper mask-wearing, and teachers encouraged students to take hand-washing breaks when needed, she said.
Students got the choice to eat in the lunchroom or the auditorium. There was enough room for social distancing, but not everyone did, Journey said.
She experienced the usual nerves of a first day: navigating a new building, getting to all her classes on time, meeting new people. But having gone back to school part-time as a eighth grader last year made her more relaxed.
“The people who were nervous, who didn’t return for in person learning … were kind of in their shell a little bit,” she said.
Journey said the pandemic has helped her “make her realize how important school was,” both educationally and socially.
Of Monday’s first day, she said: “Overall, it was a fun experience to see how the school was adjusting to this pandemic.”
Jackson Potter, teacher, Back of the Yards College Prep
Jackson Potter, a teacher at Back of the Yards College Prep, said there were “no real hiccups” on Monday’s first day of school, but concerns about safety from the delta variant remain.
While teachers are “delighted” to be back with students, Potter said, the excitement is tempered by “the knowledge that we’re all in the midst of a giant epidemiological experiment.”
Potter, who teaches junior and seniors and is a trustee with CTU, said that although his class sizes have been “manageable,” he knows of colleagues, especially in elementary schools, who have classes of 33 children or more. He added that it’s hard to keep social distancing when classes do activities or pass around materials.
Teacher Jackson Potter after the first day of school at Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School in Chicago. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
Another difficulty is not knowing which students are vaccinated and which are not. In class, he said, some students mentioned that they are not vaccinated. To Potter, it doesn’t seem as though they are vaccine-hesitant but that they “just had not prioritized it.”
There is no “structured conversation with students about (vaccinations), which seems like a missed opportunity,” Potter said. “And it’s dangerous.”
Monday felt different than most first days because it’s hard to gauge a student’s reaction behind a mask. “You can see laughter behind masks,” he said, but it’s hard to determine “who gets agitated, who’s uncomfortable.”
Potter also caught himself leaning in to hear softer-spoken students and then thought, “Oh, I’d better just stand back and get them to speak up.”
It’s also “hard to check all the boxes” of a seemingly endless list of mitigation measures, said Potter, who only realized that he ought to open the windows of his classroom during his third period. There was also some confusion about how desks should be arrange — although desks grouped together are better in terms of learning psychology, traditional rows are safer during COVID-19.
He added that some students had trouble navigating the school. Some seniors showed up to his classroom for a class that turned out to be across the hall.
He has also been thinking about the trauma that students and faculty have experienced during the pandemic. There’s currently no “systemic” solution to helping students through this, Potter said, adding teachers are trying to help, but “it’s happening in different ways based on peoples’ comfort and expertise.”
Jonah Bondurant, teacher, Benito Juarez Community Academy
According to Jonah Bondurant, a teacher at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen, Monday’s return to school had “a good vibe.”
Although everyone was “jazzed up,” there was also a new nervousness for Bondurant, a kind of “do I remember how to do this” feeling, even though he’s been teaching since 2007.
It was harder to hear students, and for his first class, the long lines at the school’s entrance meant that all his students were late.
“It was kind of weird to figure out when to start class,” said Bondurant, who ended up 30 minutes behind schedule.
Conversation in that class centered partly around students’ feelings on going back to in-person learning.
To Bondurant’s surprise, “a good chunk of students” wanted to stay virtual, he said.
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