Chicago Public Schools high schools reopened to in-person learning on Monday for the first time in more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The district said it was expecting about 25,929 students in grades 9 through 12 to return to classrooms beginning Monday, out of roughly 73,000 students total. About 34,015 high school students had opted to continue with remote learning while 12,916 did not respond to CPS' survey on student preference.
High schools are welcoming students back after another round of negotiations between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union over the district's reopening plan.
The two sides announced Friday that a tentative agreement had been reached and the CTU said Sunday that its members overwhelmingly approved the plan that includes helping students 16 and older and their families get COVID-19 vaccines, with priority given to certain ZIP codes hit hard by the pandemic. Also included in the agreement was more leeway for educators to work remotely, like if they don’t have in-person students that day.
“This agreement secures critical safety standards for returning in-person to high schools, delivers groundbreaking wins for the protection of our students and defends the safety and working conditions of all members in CPS,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement.
A CPS spokeswoman didn’t have comment Sunday beyond a joint statement issued Thursday by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson after a tentative deal was reached.
“It is a critical milestone for our families and it’s a tremendous step forward for the academic and social-emotional well-being of our students,” the statement from both leaders said.
Staff and students in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade have all returned to classrooms in recent weeks under the district's phased plan to resume in-person learning.
That plan was implemented after CPS and the CTU reached a deal to reopen K-8 schools following weeks of acrimonious negotiations over safety protocols, vaccinations and more. When the agreement between CTU and CPS was announced, there was no plan in place for high school students and staff to return.
In its initial reopening agreement with the union, the district agreed to administer vaccinations to 1,500 employees per week out of the city's supply at CPS' vaccination sites. All education workers in Illinois became eligible to be vaccinated in the state's Phase 1B of vaccinations, which began in January.
The agreement between CTU and CPS also included metrics to return to all remote learning if the pandemic worsens. The district will move to online learning for at least 14 calendar days if the city's rolling 7-day average test positivity rate: increases for seven consecutive days, is at least 15% higher each of those days than the rate one week prior and if the rate is 10% or higher on the 7th day.
Should that happen, CPS will resume in-person learning after 14 days or when the positivity rate no longer meets those three metrics, whichever happens later, the district said.
For individual pods, in-person learning will be paused when there has been one confirmed positive COVID-19 case and for individual schools, the district says it will implement a "school-wide operational pause when there are three or more confirmed positive cases in three or more different classrooms at a school within a 14-day period."
Students are also required to complete health screenings each day, according to the district. The screening must be filled out by parents before the school day begins or by students when they arrive at school, and students must have a temperature at or below 100.4 degrees to be allowed to enter school.
Any student with a fever or any COVID symptoms, such as cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or a lack of taste or smell, will be sent home.
Disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and sneeze guards are all installed in schools for usage by students and teachers, with HEPA air filters also installed to circulate and clean air in classrooms.
The district said it will continue to grant approval for remote work for employees at increased risk for severe illness due to COVID-19 or for those who serve as primary caregivers for family members at increased risk. CPS said that other accommodation requests will be granted "when operationally feasible and consistent with providing a high quality learning experience to in-person students" and that any union member who is not granted an accommodation and is not fully vaccinated can take unpaid leave with benefits during the third quarter.
The deal also included agreements on health and safety protocols (like health screenings, access to personal protective equipment, cleaning protocols and more), a plan for enhanced ventilation in schools, as well as the creation of a contact tracing team plus districtwide and school-level health and safety committees to oversee implementation.