Chicago public school students return amid bus shortages and safety concerns

Across the United States, schools are attempting to transition millions of students back to in-person classrooms after more than a year of virtual schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the gigantic shift is still fraught with safety concerns and logistical challenges.

Safely reopening schools has remained a lofty goal but a contentious issue in America, especially amid surges of the more contagious Delta variant. Nevertheless, the country’s largest school districts have remained adamant about having classes be in-person, including in Chicago, which hosts one of the largest school districts in the US.

Like reopening challenges experienced in Los Angeles, resuming in-person teaching for Chicago public school (CPS) students has also brought many complications. According to parents and the Chicago Teachers Union, there have been problems such as inaccuracies in CPS’s school Covid tracker, a city-wide shortage of buses and gaps in virtual learning for immunocompromised students.

These have all been exacerbated by what some say is a lack of communication to schools from CPS officials on how to navigate reopening challenges.

“The schools are doing the best that they can with the resources and information they’ve been given. I feel like sometimes the schools and the parents are given the same information,” said Katherine Buitron, a mother of three CPS students.

Although in-person teaching remains a post-pandemic goal, one held by Joe Biden since early March, challenges facing CPS could foreshadow similar problems for other school districts reopening, including for the New York City department of education, the largest school district in the country, which brought back students this week. At the very least, Chicago’s experience brings up new questions and anxieties on how to open classrooms in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Even before Chicago public schools reopened in late August, the Chicago Teachers Union remained wary of CPS’s Covid-19 safety proposals, charging that protocols for the fall 2021 school year were “duct-taped” together.

The union also raised concerns about the rollout of Covid testing, a system that allows parents to opt in to testing versus opting out, air filters that need replacing, and a previously mandatory temperature check and health questionnaire being replaced with a self-reported survey for students and staff. In the wake of these concerns the CTU has promised to “step up resistance” if more Covid precautions were not implemented, especially given the lack of full-time school nurses in many CPS schools.

Now, with elementary and high schools both open for in-person learning, CTU has called attention to another trouble with CPS’s coronavirus mitigation strategy: surveillance tracking of Covid cases in CPS schools. Numbers reported in CPS’s official Covid tracker differ significantly from data collected by the CTU, with the Chicago Tribune demonstrating gaps in CPS’s reporting and the CTU saying that what’s reflected in CPS data doesn’t match Covid reports confirmed by parents and teachers.

“Our school communities need trust, truth, transparency and leadership from the mayor and her team at CPS,” said the CTU president, Jesse Sharkey, in a statement. “Instead, they continue to stonewall educators, parents and the public about safety issues in a pandemic.”

While some experts have said that mitigation measures like vaccinations, masking and social distancing are more important than surveillance measures, CPS has not mandated vaccines for students and chronic overcrowding in schools makes CPS’s “3 feet” social distancing measures difficult to implement.

Buitron’s oldest child, who attends a CPS high school, has already told her that he “has not eaten lunch in the school since school has started because he doesn’t feel safe” given the packed cafeteria.

Besides lapses in Covid-19 surveillance, getting reliable bus service has also been a persistent problem for many Chicago public school parents, including for students with special needs who are entitled to transportation services according to their “individual education program”, or IEP.

Citing a bus driver shortage, one spreading nationwide, parents have struggled to find information on their child’s bus route. Some have found out on the eve of the first day, through automated messages, that bus routes have been cancelled and have been unable to get in touch with any CPS personnel about the problem.

Arionne Nettles, the mother of a disabled CPS student, received a vague message that her son’s bus route was cancelled. Nettles’s son is non-verbal and cognitively delayed, so getting him on the correct bus is crucial. Even after dialing an emergency hotline for CPS transportation difficulties, Nettles said that no one got back to her and that her calls were dropped after lengthy holds.

“I am not blaming CPS for a shortage of bus drivers but I am blaming CPS for not communicating these changes and what should be happening to concerned parents who need this information just to make sure their children are safe and being where they need to be,” said Nettles, who has since been able to confirm her bus route after calling citywide bus companies directly.

Buitron has had similar problems with bussing. Having still not received a route, she has been forced to drop off both of her kids to school in the morning, even though they have the same start time and attend school on opposite sides of the city. Meanwhile, Buitron’s youngest does virtual school in the car, using a wifi spot provided by CPS that Buitron says is “faulty”. “This is not working,” she said.

Even for students who are not attending school in person, problems persist. Students deemed “medically fragile” by CPS can be enrolled in Virtual Academy, an online school alternative. But even parents with children who meet CPS’s “medically fragile” requirement were denied admission to the program and given little support to appeal their case.

Buitron’s youngest child, who is immunocompromised and meets CPS’s “medically fragile” requirement, was denied twice from Virtual Academy, with Buitron trying unsuccessfully to reach someone who could explain how to appeal.

Now, after her son was finally admitted into Virtual Academy, Buitron describes the program as a jumble of general education learners, special needs students and students learning online during quarantine. She says that her son does not receive the classroom support he needs, also required from his IEP, due to staff shortages. “Virtual academy is not educational. It is just students sitting down in front of the computer, watching something like a program. Honestly, I could just have that by myself,” said Buitron.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lighfoot said CPS was working hard to ensure a safe return to school. “We have invested and added plenty of new safety measures, including vaccination requirements for all staff, expanded testing, and we are continuing to offer vaccination opportunities for families,” the spokesperson said.

Lightfoot has defended CPS’s reopening strategy in the past, citing the “over $100,000,000 in mitigations, including improving ventilation, air purifiers in every classroom, additional cleaning, masks, partitions and so many other efforts” made to prepare schools for students’ arrival. In response to bussing problems, Lightfoot announced previously that CPS was working with rideshare companies Uber and Lyft to secure student transportation. Similarly, CPS had informed parents without bus routes that grants of up to $1,000 could be provided to help compensate for extra transportation costs.

But affected parents say that communication on how to get the promised money has been sparse, with schools equally confused on how to secure funding.

“It was just really crazy and made me really frustrated at the fact that our most vulnerable students are being treated this way,” said Nettles.

For now, as the school year chugs along, parents remain cautiously hopeful that persisting reopening issues will resolve themselves. But a sense of frustration and neglect lingers as their children remain without the critical tools to succeed.

“I trust the administrations at both my [kids’] schools. I do not trust CPS,” said Buitron.

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