CHICAGO (CBS) — For the first time in nearly a year, thousands of elementary school students returned to classrooms at the Chicago Public Schools on Monday, as the district moves forward with a phased-in plan to resume in-person classes.

Monday was the first day back for approximately 37,000 kindergarten through 5th grade students at CPS.

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“This is the first step on the road to normalcy, whatever the new normal will be,” CPS Chief Executive Officer Janice Jackson said Monday morning.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who toured Hawthorne Scholastic Academy with Jackson as students returned to classrooms on Monday, said it was inspiring to see the “infectious excitement of our young people on their first day in class.”

“Driving here this morning, I saw young kids skipping ahead of their parents with excitement about coming back to school, and that really got me going, and then here in the school building itself, I spoke with one young 2nd grader, and said, ‘What are you hoping for today?” and he said, ‘Well, I really want to make some new friends,’” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot and Jackson said, while the majority of parents at CPS are opting to keep their kids in remote learning, it was important for the district to give parents the option of sending students back to classrooms.

“I know that there are parents out there across our city who have struggled, and this weight of home schooling has really fallen disproportionately on a lot of women who have had to sacrifice a tremendous amount during this very challenging year to make sure that they’re students were connected up, that were learning, that were getting their homework done, getting their projects done,” Lightfoot said. “I know that this has been a challenge for our parents, and I want you to know that while it may not seem like it at times, we do hear you, we do hear you, and we will continue to listen and make sure that your voices are part of this equation.”

Lightfoot said returning to classrooms is also important for students’ mental health after a year of remote learning.

“We can’t truly recover as a city if we’re not thinking about the stress and the burden that has been on our young people,” she said. “Trauma amongst our young people is real. Depression, feeling of isolation is real. And that’s why making sure that they get the supports that they need is a critical mission not only for CPS, but for our entire city to make sure that our young people get through this experience and are stronger and the better for it.”

Emily Casey, who has three children who are students at Hawthorne, said “this is truly a milestone year for each of them.”

Her oldest child is in 8th grade, so it will be her last year before high school; her middle child is in 5th grade, so this will be her last year before junior high; and her youngest is in 3rd grade, so it will be his last year taking class on the first floor at Hawthorne.

“At Hawthorne, moving up from the first floor is an exciting rite of passage right there with winning our annual raffle contest, and it symbolizes finally being part of the older half of the students rather than the younger ones,” Casey said.

Casey said all three of her children are “extremely excited” to be going back to the classroom and seeing their friends again.

“I wouldn’t say the sense of community has been lost during remote learning, but there’s definitely so much more to gain by being back in person at Hawthorn,” she said.

Although parents said it’s important for their kids to get the socialization that comes with in-person learning, there’s always concern about safety from COVID-19.

CPS parent Erin Bretts said the district’s safety measures do give her some comfort.

”I’m a little nervous, but I feel like the school’s taken all the necessary precautions, and I think they have a really well-thought-out plan,” she said.

However, some parents staged a protest with a “sick out,” hoping to pressure the district to make changes to both remote and in-person learning.

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Some parents deliberately held their children out of school and didn’t let them participate in remote learning either. They said Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS Chief Executive Officer Janice Jackson haven’t done enough to improve the quality of, or resources for remote learning.

“We participated in a sick out today because we demanded our voices to be heard, and repeatedly Lori Lightfoot and CPS has told us that, our parents, all we are is money to them. If our kids are in school, cool. If our kids aren’t in school, well it doesn’t matter, because we don’t have a seat at the table,” said Ashley Randazzo, a parent of four CPS students.

CPS is utilizing a hybrid plan as classrooms reopen. Students will learn in-person two days a week and remain remote the other three days. Teachers will be in school five days a week. Parents still have the option for all remote learning.

But each school can tailor the district’s program to its needs. For example, Davalantes said Hawthorne has enough available space to bring all of its kindergarten students back for in-person learning four days a week, with students learning remotely on Wednesdays while the school building is cleaned and disinfected.

While in school, students will be grouped into pods of approximately 15 students per classroom.

“We’ve completely reimagined what our classrooms look like to allow for social distancing,” said Hawthorne said Principal Patricia Catherine Davlantes.

Students will have their temperature taken once they arrive at school. They must socially distance and wear masks at all times.

If a student shows COVID-19 symptoms at school, they will be sent to the school’s supervised care room until a parent or guardian can pick them up.

Before dropping kids off at school, parents need to complete the daily health screener that includes questions about symptoms and recent travel.

In a virtual event this morning, several parents accused the district of doing nothing to help students get good equipment for remote learning.

The group also said CPS doesn’t do enough to ensure that Black and Brown students get an equitable education.

In-person learning for 6th through 8th grade students begins next Monday.

No date has been set yet for high school students to return to in-person learning, as the district continues negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union on a plan to reopen high school classrooms.

Jackson said the logistics for reopening high schools is more complicated, as students move between classrooms more often, and aren’t in the same groups throughout the day. Also, schools with much larger populations face a bigger challenge of maintaining social distancing.

“There are some schools where everybody could come back, you know, they’re underutilized, we can socially distance, do social distancing to a certain degree; but there are larger schools where it’s going to be much more difficult,” Jackson said.

Meantime, Lightfoot and Jackson said, as of last week, CPS has offered vaccination opportunities to nearly 18,000 employees, or more than a third of the district’s staff.

Jackson said she could not yet provide specifics on how many teachers and staff have actually received the vaccine, she said thousands have been given shots through the CPS vaccination process, while others have been given the vaccine through their own doctor.

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