First CPS students return to new version of school, under protest by teachers

Young kids bundled in winter coats, hats and gloves held their parents’ hands as they walked into school for the first time this year.

For a few moments Monday morning, Chicago Public Schools resembled normal times at a handful of buildings around the city.

But as thousands of students went back to their classrooms for the first time during the pandemic, a step that could begin a return to normalcy for many, another reality met them on the inside.

Some 6,000 preschoolers and special education students with complex disabilities are expected to be in classrooms to start the week, representing a fraction of the 77,000 children who are set to take part in the city’s phased-in resumption of in-person learning. CPS has ordered about 4,300 teachers and staff back to schools Monday, though it’s unclear how many will show up. More than a third of employees refused to work in-person last week; those who don’t show up this week won’t be paid, CPS has said.

Masks and social distancing have replaced the familiar atmosphere children are used to finding in their schools, while pre-kindergarten students are likely experiencing school for the first time in these pandemic conditions.

Thousands of teachers and families, meanwhile, continue to protest that the resumption of in-person learning is coming too soon as coronavirus infections continue to spread.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which has gone all out in trying to delay this day, is planning several demonstrations around the city.

Fear, hope and uncertainty all were present Monday as teachers and children returned to Suder Montessori Magnet School on the Near West Side.

Teacher Celine Guerrero had difficulty getting the words out.

“I don’t know how I feel right now,” she said. “I really don’t have any words. I want to be here for my students, but I also have three young children at home and I’m afraid to go home later.”

She said she’s done her best to get her classroom clean and otherwise ready, with the help of her teaching assistant.

“I’m torn, I’m just very torn,” Guerrero said.

Gina Lee, who was bringing her son Jayce, 6, back to school, said she too is torn.

“I am on the borderline of bringing him back,” she said. “I’m very concerned with the numbers of COVID cases, but I also am a teacher who has to report back today. I’m not feeling too happy about it, but I know he is excited to be back in school.”

Parent Tamara Walker said she did a lot of research before agreeing to bring back her son, Noah. She said she’s been impressed with the level of teacher and school preparation in anticipation of the return of students.

“So they’ve been extremely prepared; that being said, we are still nervous,” she said. “He has a mask and backup mask. So we’re obviously praying for the best. It’s a better solution than the at-home learning has been.”

Some teachers at Suder set up to work outside the school in solidarity with their pre-K colleagues who returned to their classrooms Monday.

At Whittier Elementary in Pilsen, parents picketed outside the school to protest the district’s decision to reopen when infection rates are still high. They were joined by Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th).

Teachers at Nathan Davis Elementary School in the Brighton Park neighborhood who spoke to reporters earlier Monday morning said they were being forced back into school under a plan that is both “reckless” and “full of holes.”

Kate O’Rourke, a bilingual pre-K special education teacher, said she’s been told to return to school even though no students have shown up for her class. Among other things, she said, school air purifiers are inadequate for the size of the classrooms.

“This is CPS’ fault,” O’Rourke said. “It’s not our school’s fault. Our principal and administrators worked day and night to get things organized to meet CPS’ guidelines, but those guidelines are confusing and full of holes.”

The City Council Education Committee is holding a hearing Monday to question CPS and health officials about their plan, though it isn’t expected to generate any new information to satisfy anxious parents and staff. Aldermen, 36 of whom recently wrote in a letter to the mayor that they are “deeply concerned” with the district’s reopening plan, have been briefed in private by CPS officials several times over the past few months.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson visited Dawes Elementary in Ashburn to start the day. At a morning news conference, Lightfoot touted the school’s preparedness and COVID-19 mitigation protocols.

Jackson refused to reveal teacher attendance on Monday, saying those figures will be shared “later this week.”

“We need to focus on the fact that a majority of our teachers are doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. And we are incredibly thankful and grateful to them for their professionalism and, more importantly, their commitment to children,” Jackson said.

“The purpose right now and the focus for me today is not on any resistance but on making sure we can educate our kids. We started school today successfully. We know that we have our classes covered. We had contingency plans in place if that didn’t occur.”

What about those teachers who refused to show up in their classrooms? Many of them are afraid of being deprived of their paychecks and locked out of their CPS email accounts.

“Any teacher who will be denied access to their Google [account] or pay — they have had several conversations and warnings and reminders and opportunities to explain why they aren’t at work. We’ve gone above and beyond,” Jackson said.

“Anyone who still has a pending accommodation, we’re working through that. That’s a separate situation. We are not forcing anyone to do anything except honor the contract.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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