Jose Olivares said he felt letdown by the district’s decision to keep high school juniors and seniors at home this fall. Chicago may revisit that part of the plan. Credit: Courtesy of Jose Olivares

Chicago Public Schools will host five virtual public meetings this week to solicit feedback on the reopening plan. The meetings run Monday through Friday. Click here for registration information.

ROSELAND — Cassius Palacio, a senior at Brooks College Prep on Chicago’s Far South Side, saw the school district’s reopening plan earlier this month and texted a screen grab to his friends. Already feeling isolated after being stuck at home for months, he typed, “I’m going to miss you guys.”  

Esmeralda DeLaGarza, a sophomore at the Southwest Side’s Solorio Academy, had a different reaction. She already has let the district know that she won’t return to the classroom. 

Chicago Public Schools announced July 16 it’s tentatively gearing up for a blend of in-person and virtual learning this fall, with one major exception: Juniors and seniors in high school will continue full-time remote instruction. But by Tuesday, school chief Janice Jackson said the district was rethinking that part of the plan following an “overwhelming response” from families who want some in-person instruction. 

For students like Palacio, the uncertainty and the possibility of an all-remote fall has triggered a spectrum of reactions. They are watching and worrying about their futures, even as the debate about reopening campuses becomes increasingly polarized and politicized.

The district will hold five public meetings this week for public feedback, in advance of releasing a final plan in August.

Some upperclassmen met the news that they would likely not return to their school buildings in September with disappointment and anxiety about navigating challenging classes, mental health concerns, and college applications from home. For other high schoolers, safety amid the unremitting pandemic remains a chief consideration. Some in those earlier grades said they plan to sit out in-person instruction altogether — a choice the district is giving all families.

For DeLaGarza, remote learning was a challenge. But she believes that the district’s decision to attempt even two days of in-person learning is “incredibly irresponsible.” She is skeptical that, even with only half of the students attending on any given day, her school would be able to keep the building sanitized and the students socially distant, she said. 

“This virus has killed so many people,” she said. “This is not a risk I am willing to take for me or for my family. I’d rather have a hard time at home than die.” 

Students on both sides of the debate said Chicago must step up its remote learning game — and be flexible as students navigate continued disruption. 

Unsatisfied with spring

Pamela Bojorquez, a senior at Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy — a charter in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood that’s following the district’s lead this fall — wants to be a doctor. She is mindful of safety amid the coronavirus outbreak. But she also worries about how her school will steer her remotely through scholarship applications and college-going materials — guidance she believes she needs as a first-generation college applicant.  

“Honestly, I’m kind of nervous,” said Bojorquez, “because I’m not sure what I will be able to do for college.”

Students described a mix of sometimes conflicting emotions as they eye school in the fall. Many recounted a trying spring of virtual learning — an experience that left some eager to return to their classrooms at least part-time.

In late spring, Jose Olivares, a junior at Hancock High School, struggled with staying focused and engaged in learning from his bedroom, where he’d cooped up to escape the bustle of his South Side home. 

Once, feeling overwhelmed as he watched his grades slip, he logged on to Google Classroom, the online platform his school uses to post assignments and connect with students. Dozens of fellow students were posting comments, some of them addressed to the school’s principal, saying that they were floundering amid the pandemic’s upheaval and protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. 

“The world is falling apart, and we have to focus on finding the area of triangles,” Olivares posted. 

He said students saw a return to school in the fall as a chance not only to get back on track academically, but to get the mental health and emotional support they were sorely missing last spring. So he said it was a letdown to learn that he likely will not be heading back to his school in September. He said he is concerned about the continuing spread of the coronavirus, but he feels the safety precautions the district plans to take, such as requiring masks and daily temperature checks, will be sufficient.  

Finley Williams, a senior at Lane Tech College Prep in North Center, said for her and other students, it was upsetting that upperclassmen would not participate in in-person learning. After a spring of being marooned at home, she yearned to be back in class. 

“I’m definitely too close to it to parse facts from feelings,” she said. Yet, she said that she takes issue with the position of some critics of the district’s plan, including the Chicago Teachers Union, which has argued that the safest path is to start fall with all-virtual instruction: “Nothing will be 100 percent safe until we have a vaccine, and we can’t prolong virtual learning until that happens.” 

Complicating factors

Other high school students feel that with COVID-19 cases on the rise in Chicago, contemplating any return to classrooms is unsafe and reckless. In their argument for a remote start, teachers union leaders have stressed that Black and Latino neighborhoods have borne the brunt of the pandemic — and that the district should concentrate its efforts on improving virtual learning. 

DeLaGarza, the Solorio sophomore, said that learning remotely was extremely taxing. After a promising start to her freshman year, she felt cut off from stimulating conversations and academic collaboration with peers. With an older tablet borrowed from her school and siblings using the family’s broadband at the same time, accessing video classes and assignments was sometimes a tortured experience.

“Expecting a lot from your students during this time is just not realistic,” DeLaGarza said.

Some students said they understood the district and educators across the country are grappling with complex, sometimes seemingly impossible choices. Williams said her disappointment about not returning to school was tempered by awareness that keeping juniors and seniors at home would make social distancing more practical for other students — and upperclassmen’s more complex schedules make it harder to confine them to the 15-student “pods” the district envisions.

While he empathized with the complexities of the decision, Palacio, the Brooks senior, said he thinks Chicago students should be consulted more on major policy decisions that impact them. He serves on a citywide junior advisory council that makes youth-focused policy recommendations, and the students meet multiple times weekly. 

“We weren’t asked for any comment on whether students should go back or not,” said Palacio, who worries about some classmates whom he’s witnessed drift away from school as the pandemic stretches on. 

For high schoolers, socialization is a critical ingredient of school, and that loss — layered with the complications of family illnesses, job losses, and other stressors brought on by the pandemic — can compound stress that teenagers feel in this moment, said Dr. Sonya Mathies Dinizulu, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Chicago Medical Center. 

“The rituals and rites of passage for juniors and seniors is so heavily ingrained in our culture,” said Mathies Dinizulu, who would like to see schools be intentional about integrating mental health conversations and curricula into all aspects of the school day whether students return to buildings or learn virtually. “There is a sense of loss.”

Students said the district must work hard to improve the experience of remote learning for everyone, and that it needed to step up plans to offer counseling for students. Some said they struggle with the uncertainty of a tentative plan, which is dependent on the course of the pandemic — and have questions about some of the fine print on the district’s plan.

Zion Trinidad is in a career and technical program at Taft High School, and he was intrigued that some in-person learning may be an option, even for juniors and seniors like him. But will all of them include in-person learning, and how much of it? And when district leaders said students who need added academic support will have some in-person opportunities, what will be the threshold to welcome a student into the building? 

Ultimately, students voiced hope of a return to a more normal school experience at some point during the year. 

“I hope it gets better by the time we get to graduate,” said Bojorquez. 

Chicago Public Schools will host five virtual public meetings this week to solicit feedback on the reopening plan. The meetings run Monday through Friday. Click here for registration information.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.