CHICAGO (CBS) — Thousands of the youngest Chicago Public School students and their teachers return to their classrooms today, following a weeks-long stand-off between the district and the Chicago Teachers Union over COVID safety.

“Nothing beats seeing classrooms filled with teaching materials; the bright colors that we all remember from our own elementary school experience, that students simply can’t replicate at home,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday morning as she visited William H. Brown Elementary School on the West Side.

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The return to school plan is staggered. Thursday, Pre-k and special education students whose parents signed up for in-person learning returned to classrooms.

Kindergarten through 5th grade teachers return to schools on Feb. 22, with those students starting in-person March 1.

That’s the same day middle school teachers and staff come back, with 6th through 8th grade students in their seats one week later on March 8.

Pre-k and special education students had been back in classrooms for nearly three weeks in January before CTU voted to authorize teachers to work remotely until there was a reopening agreement in place with CPS. Thursday was the first day back in classrooms for pre-k and special education students since the end of January.

Lightfoot said she was excited to see “pure joy on the face of our youngest learners,” as they returned to classrooms on Thursday.

Earlier this week, rank-and-file Chicago Teachers Union members voted to ratify a reopening deal with CPS, although the union isn’t exactly happy with it.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a statement Wednesday morning that the reopening agreement is where discussions should have started months ago, not where they should have ultimately landed.

“Let me be clear. This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families. The fact that CPS could not delay reopening a few short weeks to ramp up vaccinations and preparations in schools is a disgrace. Yet the mayor and CPS leadership were willing to do even further harm to our school district to maintain that posture. That’s how much they care about real safety for students, their families and the educators and school staff who support them,” Sharkey wrote in a letter to CTU members.

The agreement the CTU members approved includes a plan to vaccinate 1,500 staff members each week.

It also lays out metrics for a district-wide 14-day return to remote learning if COVID-19 cases begin to rise. This will be triggered in part by a seven-consecutive-day rise in the city’s virus positivity rate.

The district has also agreed to a plan for increased ventilation and PPE materials.

“I’m extremely excited that we were able to reach an agreement with CTU,” CPS Chief Executive Officer Janice Jackson said Thursday morning. “Now starts the hard work of returning to in-person instruction. We are doing everything within our power to make sure that this is successful.”

West Side Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who joined Lightfoot and Jackson at Brown Elementary, said, “It gives me great pleasure and honor to be here now that we are done with our hostage takeover over our children here in the city of Chicago.”

However, Burnett also thanked CPS teachers, and said he was confident they would approve the reopening agreement negotiated with the union.

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“Teaching is a very noble position. I know I still love all of my teachers from when I was in kindergarten. I still love them. Teachers are mentors, teachers are role models, and teachers are also surrogate parents to our children, and I couldn’t imagine these teachers – who love their children, love their students – not wanting to get back with them,” he said. “I want to commend CPS, the mayor, the unions, everyone that was involved to come together to make sure our kids get another opportunity to get this nurturing that they so badly need.”

However, some teachers and parents have said they still do not trust schools will be safe as they reopen during the pandemic. The parent group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education has said parents were left out of the planning for reopening school buildings, and noted a vast majority of CPS students will continue to learn remotely, yet the reopening plan did not include any improvements in remote learning.

Some parents have urged CPS to reduce the amount of screen time required for students who are still learning remotely, but Jackson said there are no plans to do so.

“We think that the program that we have in place, the curriculum that we have in place works. E know that we have a strong remote learning program, but the goal really is to have a return to in-person instruction as a school system,” Jackson said. “Some of the things I have heard specifically around reducing class time, things like that, those are things that we won’t commit to.”

Meantime, parents who have opted to send their kids back to classrooms said the return of in-person learning is a huge relief.

“It’s been a long time coming, and I think that the process that they’ve got going on, it works good,” said Cajuana Franklin as she walked her 4-year-old son to Brown Elementary on Thursday.

Her son is happy to be back, and so is she, because he struggled with recognizing letters and pronouncing words when he was learning from home.

“The week that he was in school, he came back, and my baby knew all the letters and sounds and stuff. So I felt like he would do better in class versus remotely,” Franklin said.

Lightfoot acknowledged that there’s a “healing process that needs to take place” at schools now that kids are starting to head back to classrooms.

“We owe it to these students and their families to create a public school infrastructure that ensures their social, emotional, and educational recovery well after this pandemic is over, and the first step in creating that infrastructure is giving our families options to come back with for in-person learning,” she said. “Reopening our schools for in-person learning gives them a fighting chance to end the school year strong, with the tools they need to heal, recover, and move past this moment.”

Parents like Franklin said finally returning to classrooms is one way to do that.

“Even though this pandemic isn’t over, there are still safe ways to get around to doing things, because if you can go to a grocery store and there’s a million people inside the grocery story, why can’t these kids be in school and learn in school?” Franklin said.

Meantime, the mayor again criticized the Trump administration for mishandling the response to the pandemic, and for not doing enough to supply enough vaccines to quickly inoculate those most at risk because of their age, job, or pre-existing conditions.

“We shouldn’t have been in a situation where we were arguing about who gets vaccinated, who could actually be first, because we should have had more vaccines to get the entire city vaccinated within a matter of weeks, but we are in a situation, because of the incompetence of a former federal administration that left the cupboard bare from vaccines, and mishandled the entire response to COVID-19, all that has done is heightened people’s fears and concerns,” she said.

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CPS and CTU have yet to reach an agreement on when high school students and teachers will return to classrooms. Jackson said negotiations on when that will happen are underway, and she said the district is committed to using the same reopening framework for younger students as part of any deal for in-person classes at the high school level.

CBS 2 Chicago Staff