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Parents Worried Amid Chicago Schools' Attempts To Transition To In-Person Learning

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This week, thousands of public school students in Chicago return to their classrooms in person for the first time in a year. It happened after a dramatic fight over the conditions to reopen. And though the schools are open, most students are still at home. Here's Sarah Karp of our member station WBEZ.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: When Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot toured a school on Monday, she talked about a class of kindergarten students whose enthusiasm was off the charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORI LIGHTFOOT: This is exactly what we fought for. This is the moment that we knew would be possible.

KARP: With the phase-in of in-person learning, more than 61,000 preschool, special education and elementary school students are expected this month to go into their schools. It comes after Lightfoot fought a contentious battle with the teachers' union over a reopening agreement. Seven-year-old Noah Greer (ph), waiting outside Monday for his temperature to be taken, says getting back into the classroom is great.

NOAH GREER: Because I love all the stuff. And you get awesome free lunch.

KARP: But what that little boy walked into was dramatically different than how school looked a year ago. In Chicago, 70% of students have chosen to stay fully remote. Those attending in schools are spread out over 400-plus buildings. Many classes have only a handful of students. Most students only go in two days a week. The plan calls for staff to be in schools with the students and simultaneously teach remotely to those at home. Yet one in three is either working from home or took a leave of absence. Noah's mother, Elizabeth Greer (ph), says her son goes into class and logs into his laptop as if he's remote. But her daughter's teacher is in the classroom with only three other students and 20-plus still remote. But Greer says her kids enjoy being back.

ELIZABETH GREER: Funny because my 7-year-old kept talking about how delicious lunch was (laughter). I think it just - being in the building after a year reminded them what they loved about being in the building.

KARP: But some principals say, without staff in buildings, they have children in classes glued to laptops, some without certified teachers, others in combined grades. Troy LaRaviere heads the Chicago Principals Association and argues that schools with majority Black students are scrambling.

TROY LARAVIERE: Black students are almost twice as likely to be victimized by this lack of planning, to be victimized by the district's indifference to the staffing issue.

KARP: Schools chief Janice Jackson says more substitutes and part-time staff are being hired. Jackson fears that remote learning is leaving too many students behind. She says she's expecting a surge of in-person students once families see how smooth it's going.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Karp in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONMA'S "CHRONO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.