Bus problems, COVID-19, a new school building: CPS starts another unpredictable year

Chicago Public Schools students will return Monday to the fullest classrooms they’ve seen in more than 17 months, but the COVID-19 pandemic is set to make its mark on a third consecutive school year that’ll start with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety for most families and educators.

The fall semester seems poised to be unpredictable, with no restrictions on in-person learning — and an extremely limited online option — while the coronavirus sees a resurgence through the highly contagious Delta variant and most school-aged children remain unvaccinated.

CPS is welcoming kids back before Labor Day for the first time in nearly a decade. Then, thousands of families opted to enjoy the summer for another week, leading to woeful attendance numbers until after the holiday. Now, amid a pandemic that has caused thousands to disengage and lose touch with their schools, many parents are worried about safety and considering whether to pull their kids from CPS to homeschool.

“I don’t want to think about the worst-case scenario,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday when asked what CPS would do if thousands of the district’s 340,000 students don’t show up this week. Only about 25% of students returned for in-person learning last spring while the rest opted to stay remote, but this year CPS is only offering an online option to a few hundred kids who have underlying medical conditions.

“I’m obviously very familiar with the prior history,” Lightfoot said. “We’re in an unusual time, but we’ve got to reach our young people and their parents and guardians and make sure that they understand school is starting — to address and allay any concerns that they have but get them back in school.”

The mayor’s comments came during a news conference at Hancock College Prep, where excitement may overshadow concerns at the start of the year.

Ever since CPS turned Hancock into one of the district’s 11 prestigious selective enrollment high schools in 2015, students at the Southwest Side school have pushed for a building that matched their elite designation — and the types of facilities enjoyed by their counterparts on the North Side.

On Monday, Hancock students will walk into a brand new school without the leaky ceilings and cramped hallways of old.

“Students on the Southwest Side of Chicago deserve the same educational opportunities we see throughout the North Side of the city,” Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) said at a ribbon-cutting event Friday for the new building.

CPS interim CEO José Torres joked to a couple dozen teachers watching the news conference in the new Hancock gymnasium that they had a lot of boxes to unpack and could use students’ help Monday.

“The students and teachers here deserve a modern, state-of-the-art learning environment to match their efforts,” Torres said.

Interim chief education officer Maurice Swinney said he, as a former principal, could only imagine how excited educators and students would be for their new building, since “Hancock has truly been a strong pillar in Chicago’s Southwest community.”

Elsewhere, transportation is already causing anxiety for some families.

The start of any school year is usually fraught with bus problems as drivers figure out new routes and families adjust to different schedules. But this year, a shortage of bus drivers is affecting districts nationwide — and parents are frustrated that they received very little notice ahead of this week’s return.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said the district already had a shortage before last week and planned accordingly, but then 73 drivers resigned Friday, with a total of 10% quitting since the start of last week. The district now has 770 drivers — about 500 fewer than what’s needed, she said.

“As a result, the district went from being able to provide all eligible students a bus route to being unable to accommodate transportation for approximately 2,100 students within a matter of days,” Bolton wrote in an email. About 990 of those students are in special education.

CPS said it plans to combine routes to try to make up for the driver shortage, which could lead to longer rides, earlier pick-up times and delays in getting home after school. Special education students will be prioritized for solutions, but they may see changes to their transportation schedules, Bolton said.

The district said it would send robocalls and emails over the weekend to families affected by the changes and offer them $1,000 upfront and $500 monthly for a travel reimbursement until the problems are fixed. Many parents posted their frustrations to social media over the weekend as they scrambled to find alternate ways to get their kids to school Monday.

“We are saddened and extremely frustrated by this situation,” Bolton said, “and we express our sincerest apologies to the impacted families for the inconvenience this has caused — especially with such short notice.”

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