When Chicago Public Schools reopened this fall for all students, many challenges continued to be evident as a result of the pandemic. About eighteen months have passed where students and teachers were subjected to periods of remote and hybrid learning. Nothing could have prepared them for the issues that have come about from this interruption of normal learning patterns. Some of the issues include staff shortages, transportation challenges, surges in COVID-19 infection, difficulties in school-based testing, and class cancellations because of safety concerns.
It has not been easy to get back to teaching in Chicago-area schools. Districts here and across the state and nationwide face issues that include trying to make up lost academic ground and deal with the other matters while protecting students from COVID-19. The third-largest school district in the U.S. is Chicago Public Schools. There have been several factors to surface this school year that have impacted learning and will have a lasting effect well into the future. They include the following:
Factor #1 – Enrollment Takes a Dive
The past two years have seen an increase in the number of students leaving the public school system and joining either private schools or opting for homeschooling. According to Chicago Public Schools, student enrollment dipped 3% or 10,000 students. A total of 53,700 students have left the district since late 2020 and the addition of new students entering the district has not been great enough to offset the number of those moving out of the district. For comparison, a total of 3.6% of students left public schools over the same period across the state. Enrollment figures are vital for school funding and less students means less funding.
Factor #2 – COVID Relief Money Spent
The Chicago Public Schools district has gone through a lot of federal COVID relief funds. The district has spent over $1.26 billion through three relief packages since spring 2020. This amounts to 45% of the funds allocated, and plans are in place to spend another $730 million in the next school year on academics and social emotional learning support. Extra staffing is where a large portion of the funds have been spent, bringing tutors and counselors on board specifically to assist with academics and address mental health concerns. For those seeking help privately, Geode Health in West Loop offers care for adolescents and adults.
Factor #3 – Cancelled Classes Result in Union Dispute
When the Chicago Teachers Union voted to teach remotely in January 2022 in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases, things were happening. Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot canceled classes for five days. It meant a change in sleep patterns for all. A safety plan was agreed upon by both sides, which saw masks for both teachers and students, additional COVID testing, and an outline of when a school or class would revert to remote teaching. The disruption frustrated parents to the point where many of them joined forces and filed lawsuits against school districts across the state. A temporary restraining order remains in place, and Chicago Public Schools was named in the lawsuit.
Factor #4 – District COVID Cases Continue to Climb
Chicago Public Schools names the omicron variant of COVID-19 as responsible for much of the increase in cases throughout district schools. At the start of the school year, there were 1,073 cases, and near the end of the school year the total was 22,114 cases. Many parents opted to home school. The district also says that 44.7% of eligible students had been fully vaccinated by early May. Earlier, in March, 75% of district schools had less than half of their students fully vaccinated, with 34% having under a quarter of their students vaccinated and 30 schools sat with under 10% vaccinated.
Factor #5 – Bus Service Unreliable to Start
There was a serious gap in transportation at the beginning of the school year. Chicago Public Schools could not meet the demand and had 4,000 students without bus service two months into the school year. On opening day, the district had only 500 of the 1,200 required bus drivers and pointed to new transportation requests, changes in bus routing, and enrollment changes as causes. Some families who resorted to providing their own transportation received stipends from the school district to help offset costs.
As you can see, COVID-19 has had a ripple effect within the school system, and it has been more obvious in larger districts like Chicago Public Schools. While all the issues will be ironed out, it could take another full year of recovery. It’s anyone’s guess what the impact of that will be.