A long line of parents stood outside Bouchet Elementary on Monday afternoon in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, waiting to pick up their kids after school. It was their first time doing so in nearly a year, ever since Chicago Public School (CPS) buildings closed back on March 17, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was a little worried about [my kids] coming back in,” said Kalicia Lee, parent of a fifth grader at Bouchet. “But I want her to get more help.”
Like Lee, many parents at Bouchet were worried, but they were also excited and relieved to have their kids back inside the classroom, where they can better focus on their schoolwork.
“It was hard,” Lee said about remote learning. “Like I said, the kids weren’t paying no attention sitting at the computer. They’ll do better sitting in school. They get distracted at home.”
On March 1, 421 elementary schools across the CPS district welcomed back small numbers of their K-5 students for hybrid learning in a large effort to return to in-person instruction. They joined the 5,000 pre-K and special education students who have already been back to the classrooms. As of Feb. 19, 30% of K-5 students in CPS had opted into hybrid learning. CPS has yet to release attendance data from March 1.
Students in CPS’ hybrid learning plan are split into 15-person pods that attend in-person instruction together only two days out of the week: either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday. All students are expected to continue remote learning on Wednesdays.
On Feb. 10, the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) announced that its rank-and-file members had approved an agreement with CPS to resume in-person instruction after weeks of deadlocked negotiations. The agreement included revised health metrics for returning to full remote learning, vaccination plans for 2,000 pre-K and cluster teachers and staff with medically vulnerable household members, and a finalized timeline for phasing in hybrid learning in elementary schools.
According to intent-to-return data from December 2020, only 35% of families at Bouchet opted into hybrid learning, although it’s unclear if those numbers have since changed. Attendance numbers at Bouchet for March 1 have yet to be released.
During a press conference on the morning of March 1 on the other side of Chicago at Hawthorne Elementary in Lakeview, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS Chief Executive Officer Janice Jackson celebrated the first day back into the physical classroom for K-5 students, reiterating the importance of parent voice in the school reopening process.
“I know I speak on behalf of the parents across the city, all of whom now have a choice whether that’s remote or in-person, that we’re doing what’s best for their children,” said Jackson.
But for parents at Bouchet, many didn’t feel like they had much of a choice in the matter.
“Remote learning wasn’t working,” said Stephanie King, the parent of a pre-K and third grade student at Bouchet. “There were a lot of glitches. My kid would get kicked out from the [virtual] classroom or the computer would shut down.”
In order to keep up with schoolwork, King said she would stay in contact with her children’s teachers who would provide her with the assignments they needed if her kids’ laptop wasn’t working. Ultimately, she decided it was best to sign her kids up for hybrid learning.
“So far, things are going smoothly,” said Danielle Cobb, parent of a first-grader at Bouchet. For her, hybrid learning meant she could finally go back to work. “Now I have more of a flexible schedule and can pick up my kid after-school.”
Another parent expressed relief for her kids returning back into the physical classroom, but emphasized the need to continue following safety protocols.
“The classrooms are smaller too, which I wish was the case in a regular setting,” said Portia Teague, parent of a fifth and third-grader at Bouchet. “I wish [CPS] wasn’t so overcrowded. That’s probably why there were so many issues [with reopening].”
Although parents were optimistic on the first day back, several mentioned that they’re still waiting to hear what their kids have to say about hybrid learning. Starting on Monday, March 8, CPS will begin welcoming students in grade 6-8 who opted into hybrid learning back into the school buildings, joining pre-K, cluster, and K-5 students. As of February 19, 29% of all elementary school students in CPS had opted into hybrid learning.
There is still no return date for high school students.