CPS high school students return to classrooms after more than a year of virtual learning


Karina Mireya | The DePaulia

FILE-Students from Chicago Student Pandemic Response,GoodKidsMadCity and other groups toured Wabash Avenue in Bronzeville to advocate against reopening schools in the coming weeks. Chicago Public Schools is expected to welcome K-8 students on February.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted on April 18 to approve a plan to reopen high schools for in-person instruction. The CTU Rules and Elections committee certified the ballot results of the addendum to their reopening agreement with Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

Members voted 83 percent in favor of ratifying the agreement.

The agreement secures safety standards for returning students to in-person high school, delivers protection of students and defends the working conditions of employees of CPS by including access to vaccination sites.

“Under the terms of our agreement, CPS has to provide for the mitigation strategies that currently keep people safe in our schools including six feet of social distancing, mask wearing, adequate ventilation with HEPA filtration which clears the air from each class at least five times an hour,” said CTU Communications Director Chris Geovannis.

The plan emphasizes safety, which we certainly appreciate,” said Matthew Swanson, assistant principal of Whitney Young High School.

A CPS survey reported that 35 percent — about 26,000 of 73,000 high school students — opted to resume in-person learning.

An agreement in the plan is that schools are required to follow a high school schedule that details student attendance based on school size and percentage of students returning.

The high school schedule is intended to safely serve students by following Covid-19 guidelines. CPS students 16 and older and their families will receive aid for vaccine access and high school principals and supervisors will allow teachers and clinicians to work remotely if the work environment is not safe.

Swanson said that teachers did a “great job setting up their classrooms the week before students returned, alternate spaces were provided if capacity was an issue.” Whitney Young follows the “model two” schedule that allows for students to participate in two days of in-person learning per week. About 53 percent of the Whitney Young student population opted to return to the classroom. However, not every student who opted in has returned.

Covid-19 vaccination sign-ups have been offered to employees through CPS sites, according to a CPS press release. Geovannis said CPS vaccination sites have not been successful for teachers and staff.

Geovannis said that the event that occurred in March with Innovative Express Care led to the misallocation of 6,000 doses.

“A number of teachers and staff have had appointments scheduled for less than 24 hours from now cancelled,” said CTU president Jesse Harkey in a statement regarding the misallocation of those vaccines. “It’s a failure, on multiple levels, from the people who run our school district.”

Under the proposed plan, CPS agreed to aid vaccine access for high school students 16 and older and their families.

“That was a deal breaker for us; they had to create a program to facilitate getting vaccines for students and their family members,” Geovannis said.

After more than a year of virtual learning, Swanson said that the students’ return feels like a step toward normalcy. 

“It was really exciting to see the students back in school,” Swanson said. “The building had been so quiet without them it didn’t feel like a school. There is an energy this past week I missed.”

Silvia Castillo, aunt of a junior at Lincoln Park High School, said that even though her niece has her first vaccine, she feels that it’s too early to have students return to in-person classes.

“I don’t think the city went out of their way to provide all possible resources to make schools safe,” Castillo said.

Her niece said that she will finish off the school year at home and hopes to return to school in the fall.

CPS is planning to offer daily in-person instruction for all students for the 2021-2022 school year beginning in the fall. CPS released school budgets for the 2021-2022 school year, which provide $225 million in additional funding to prioritize the needs of students. Some of the investments include special education funding, additional funding to increase nurses, social workers and case managers.

“Our teachers, librarians, PSRPs, clinicians and counselors would also like to return full time, in person in the fall, but the conditions of that return must be bargained with educators and our union,” CTU wrote in a press release addressing the return of school in the fall.