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Teachers And Parents Express Concern Over Chicago Children's Return To Schools

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Chicago Public Schools is beginning a slow, phased resumption of in-person teaching. It's the latest big-city school district to start bringing kids back into classrooms. But leaders are facing resistance from some teachers, staff and others who worry it is not yet safe to reopen. Sarah Karp of member station WBEZ reports.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: More than 6,000 Chicago Public School students came back to their schools today. But another 72,000 are in queue to return in a few weeks. Schools chief Janice Jackson says she's excited about in-school instruction.

JANICE JACKSON: Really happy to see our students - our youngest students, some of our most vulnerable students - here today learning because they deserve a quality education.

KARP: But Jackson's plans are facing some headwinds. Today, some teachers and staff stayed home. They faced losing pay, being blocked from their virtual classroom and eventually fired. Kate O'Rourke is among them. She teaches a preschool class of special education students.

KATE O'ROURKE: We also have to fight back and say, no, not yet, not until our schools and communities are ready and we have a plan we can trust.

KARP: O'Rourke says she doesn't feel safe going into schools when community positivity rates are as high as 16%. And she says not one of her students signed up for in-person learning. School district officials haven't yet provided numbers on how many staff defied orders to come to school today. But as administrators try to bring more students and staff into schools over the next few weeks, they need support from the teachers union. Otherwise, the school system could face a possible strike.

Still, some principals and teachers are trying to make the best out of the situation. Here at Dawes Elementary on the southwest side of the city, teacher Aileen Martin started out her afternoon preschool session by explaining to the 3-year-olds how things will be different.

AILEEN MARTIN: I know when you're excited to see your friends or teachers sometimes, you want to give a hug. But we can't do that this year, so we're going to go like this. One, two, three - good job.

KARP: Martin thrusts her hand into the air, giving her students an air high-five. And the 3-year-olds, sitting behind plastic screens on each of their desks and wearing masks, give her an air high-five back.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Karp in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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