Chicago Public Schools is taking its biggest step toward a return to normalcy Monday, a full 349 days after the pandemic closed schools and upended education as families and educators knew it. But school, for the foreseeable future, will still look nearly unrecognizable.
The vast majority of the 421 elementary and middle schools welcoming students back over the next week — more than 92% — will be less than half full, and 42% will be less than a quarter full.
Teachers across the city are expecting single-digit students per class, including some with no children returning at all. Schools have split their returning students into Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday cohorts, with Wednesdays reserved for school cleaning and remote learning for all.
Principals have been frank with parents in school meetings over the past few weeks and months. At many schools, the focus will be causing as little disruption as possible to remote learning. Which for most in-person students means their return to classrooms could feature a similar educational experience to the one at home.
Though every school is free to tailor the district’s plans to its needs, educators will largely work with in-person and remote students simultaneously. Most teachers will sit at a computer at the front of the classroom and provide virtual instruction as they have this whole school year. For large portions of the day, students will sit at socially distant desks either following along on their own devices or a projector screen.
The mere presence of a teacher and classmates, however, is sure to benefit many students who have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s social isolation — even as classes are split into pods with a maximum of 15 students who are not allowed contact with other groups.
Many educators have also planned limited activities in the so-called “asynchronous” time that continues to be set aside in remote learning for independent activities rather than live instruction.
There are also some classrooms that will have no teacher, whether because of a health accommodation or other planning reasons. In those classrooms, newly hired seasonal employees will supervise students as they learn virtually from a teacher or a substitute who is working remotely.
“Of course, it will be remote learning from the classroom. Almost all of our kids are remote,” said a principal who asked to not to be named to be able to openly share thoughts on the plan.
That principal believes the school is ready to keep students and staff safe from COVID-19 — but is more concerned with keeping intact students’ virtual experience.
“If we did anything other than remote learning from the classroom, we would be hurting almost all of our students. Any other choice would mean choosing for almost all of our students to learn less. We are not going to do that.”
Another principal said the non-live, asynchronous time would give teachers a good opportunity to work with the students who are in front of them while remote students work independently.
Still, schedules have already changed at many elementary schools to accommodate in-person learners. The amount of instructional time is falling for many remote students, and time dedicated to small group learning, for example, may be shifting from several days per week to one for those at home.
“No matter if a family is hybrid or remote, there are still gaps in the plan that families are greatly concerned about,” leaders of the parent group Raise Your Hand wrote last week.
N. Side, NW Side schools see bigger share of students returning
Whether because of health concerns or a realization of what in-person learning will entail, the families of about 17,000 students have decided to remain in remote learning after originally opting to return. That puts an expected 60,000 preschool through eighth grade and special education cluster students — 29% — back in classrooms, and leaves 145,000 still remote.
More than 37,000 of those students in K-5 are due to return Monday, with another 18,500 in grades 6-8 set to return next week. That’s aside from the 5,000 pre-kindergarten and special education cluster program students who have been in classrooms already, and 74,000 high school students have no scheduled return date.
Most schools will have small class sizes because of the smaller percentage of students returning and the smaller student pods. But while lots of buildings may feel empty relative to pre-pandemic days, there could still be challenges — especially for those where many students are returning.
The 25 schools with the highest share of their students opting to return to classrooms are concentrated on the Northwest Side, the North Side and in the Mount Greenwood community on the Far South Side. Mount Greenwood Elementary is expecting more than 1,000 students back, nearly 85% of its enrollment and about 500 kids more than the next closest school.
Meanwhile, places like Morton School of Excellence in East Garfield Park, Spry Elementary in South Lawndale and Telpochcalli Elementary in Little Village have fewer than 20 students, or about one-tenth of their student bodies, scheduled to return.
Aside from class instruction, other parts of the school experience will look vastly different than when schools shut down nearly a year ago.
CPS has spent over $100 million to implement health and safety protocols it believes will keep infections low.
Masks will be required for students and staff at all times other than lunch. Kids will be expected to enter and exit through various doors around the building. Student and staff temperatures will be taken near the entrance, and kids will be told to frequently wash their hands or use hand sanitizer.
If a student’s temperature taken at the entrance registers above 100.4 or if they develop symptoms during the day, they’ll be sent to a designated isolation room until their parent or guardian picks them up. A select few schools have installed quarantine pods that look hospital-grade in gymnasiums or auditoriums in case the regular isolation room gets full.
At some buildings, each classroom will be designated a specific stairwell and bathroom to use. Bathrooms should have alternating sinks and toilets blocked off to encourage social distancing. Drinking fountains in most schools are expected to be covered by plastic wrap and be inaccessible.
There are still educators and families who are worried the protocols won’t uniformly be followed, leaving cracks in the plan that could cause COVID cases to rise.
But district officials believe if the initial reopening goes smoothly, more parents and teachers will become comfortable with in-person instruction, leading to more students returning for the fourth academic quarter that starts April 19.
“Elementary school families will be offered an opportunity to come back to school prior to the start of the fourth quarter, and we hope you will consider sending your child to school,” the district said in a letter sent to families Saturday.
Lunch and specials
Rather than the usual spectacle that is a school lunch period, many students will eat in their classrooms at their desks — which will be 6 feet apart. They’ll be expected to sit forward and not interact with others while their masks are off. Some schools may use larger spaces if they’re able to maintain social distancing, or they might opt for outdoor lunch or recess once the weather warms.
One principal called lunch a “high-stakes time” when the strongest precautions should be taken to avoid infections.
Art teachers at some schools will travel from one student pod to another to limit movement of large groups of students or will teach online from another classroom altogether. Those who have more than 10 classes to teach will split their courses into five-week blocks or by quarter, so educators work with the same set of 10 pods five days a week for a period of time, and then shift to a second set of pods for the next period of time.
For physical education, many schools plan to conduct masked exercises of “mild- to low-intensity,” largely in classrooms. And after-school clubs may be held in a limited in-person way — or kept online.
Students will bring their CPS-issued laptops and tablets to school and back home every day. Kids who use their own privately purchased devices for remote learning will be asked to keep those home and will instead have a CPS device to use at school.
“School will look and feel very different,” Erik Olson, principal at Hamline Elementary in Back of the Yards, said in a video guide to school reopenings.