Chicago Public Schools (CPS) buildings re-opened for in-person learning on Jan. 11, drawing mixed reactions from members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
The buildings had been closed since mid-March, when the pandemic began; but pre-K students and cluster programs have returned, and teachers who work with those students were back in buildings on Jan. 4 preparing their classrooms while continuing to teach remotely.
Leaders of the CTU have opposed re-opening, but locally, special-education teacher Amanda Penn, who works at Barbara Vick Early Childhood and Family Center in Morgan Park, said she feels ready.
“I feel confident that we can do this safely,” Penn said. “Not everyone’s coming back, so our rooms have reduced numbers. We are able to space the children out. I would send my two children back into this building.”
Barbara Vick, 2554 W. 113th St., serves children with special needs ages 3-5.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced late in 2020 that those students would return to in-person learning in January, with all kindergarten through eighth-grade students returning on Feb. 1.
Teachers and staff for those grade levels will return to schools on Jan. 25.
According to media reports, over half of the 7,000 teachers and staff required to return to schools on Jan. 4 did not show up.
CPS officials said teachers will not be paid if they do not report to buildings.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement on Jan. 8 that school buildings aren’t safe enough.
“CPS and the mayor are saying that they desperately want to open schools, but in many buildings, they’ve done nothing to make conditions any safer—and that’s without the threat of a pandemic,” Sharkey said. “Parents, students, teachers, community groups and elected officials aren’t demanding that CPS and the mayor keep buildings closed; they’re demanding that they exhaust all resources in making schools as safe as possible before re-opening.”
Penn said she has led remote learning from inside Barbara Vick every day, and she’s “watched safety protocols and procedures from the ground up.” She’s seen extra equipment for buildings, including dividers for desks, and an air-quality firm visited and gave the school a passing grade.
She said Barbara Vick is a small building with only seven classrooms, and the school is “very fortunate” to have two air-purification systems per classroom—one provided by administration, one by CPS.
Families can still utilize remote learning, and Penn said she will have five students per session attending in-person learning.
Finishing the 2019-20 school year via remote learning was difficult, she said, but things have gone smoother this year.
“It was a challenge at first to bring the magic of in-person learning to everybody’s home, but we do a really good job,” she said. “We incorporate reading books and a lot of videos and songs and music and movement, the same as we would if these children were in front of us.”
She praised families for providing a huge lift.
“This would not be possible if it wasn’t for our parents. They are superstars. They are rock stars,” she said, noting they sit with their children and help them write and paint. “They are absolutely amazing. This year, there should be a parent appreciation week.”
Penn said toys in classrooms will be sterilized, and children will have individual bins with their work materials. Two students will be allowed to sit together at the same table. Students are required to wear masks unless they have a note from a medical professional.
Teachers and aides will be assigned the same students, then rotate weekly.
Barbara Vick is in good position, she said.
“We’re fortunate,” Penn said. “Our classrooms are large.”
Lightfoot and the CTU have clashed for several months over returning to in-person learning. When the mayor and CPS CEO Janice Jackson presented a plan over the summer to utilize hybrid learning, in which students would both learn remotely and be in buildings during the school week, the CTU quickly rejected the idea.
On Jan. 11, Lightfoot extended Chicago’s stay-at-home order to Jan. 22. But, three days earlier, she told the media that returning to school buildings is vital.
“Our children’s lives, indeed their futures, are at stake,” Lightfoot said. “To deny parents this option is irresponsible and wrong.”