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Chicago High Schoolers Return To Classrooms For A Bittersweet End To The School Year

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In-school learning has begun for thousands of high schoolers in Chicago's public schools after more than a year of remote instruction. For many seniors, going back is bittersweet as they try to make the end of high school memorable despite all that has been lost. WBEZ's Adriana Cardona-Maguigad reports.

ADRIANA CARDONA-MAGUIGAD, BYLINE: Imagine being a high school senior trying to pack a whole school year's worth of memories in about eight weeks. That's what thousands of high schoolers in Chicago public schools like Cecilia Dominguez will be trying to do before the school year ends.

CECILIA DOMINGUEZ: I was like, I don't want to come because you know how, like, the virus is still going on. At the same time, I wanted to come to do my work.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Dominguez says learning from home is hard for her because she takes care of her newborn nephew. Outside Lake View High School on Chicago's North Side, she says being back allows her to catch up on schoolwork. Jacob Ross is also a senior at Lake View. He isn't thrilled about going back, but he still thinks it's important.

JACOB ROSS: To get used to being in the classroom again.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Earlier this month, the school district expected about 36% of all high schoolers back in school buildings, most for two days a week. But on the first week, a significant number of students didn't show up. But after more than a year of remote instruction during a pandemic that has taken a toll on students and their families, bringing back the excitement of the senior year may not be easy. Ross and Dominguez will be attending in-class school on Mondays and Tuesdays. Other students are expected Thursdays and Fridays. Ross says it feels lonely inside the building.

ROSS: Not being able to, like, walk around, not being able to sit with my friends at lunch - it kind of upsets me.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Other seniors also hoped their last year would be different.

AVERY HARRIS: I definitely pictured my senior year being in person with, you know, pep rallies and seeing my friends in the hallways, going out to lunch with them.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Avery Harris goes to Lane Tech College Prep, also on the North Side. He says remote learning felt long and tedious.

HARRIS: I didn't have the same, you know, energy or motivation to do it as I would as, like, in-person school.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: Parent Monica Lasky says that with her daughter, who is a senior at Jones College Prep...

MONICA LASKY: What they lost - social interactions are like oxygen to teenagers. And without those social interactions, many of them, including my daughter, became depressed.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: But this year many Chicago seniors didn't have a chance to become team captains or editors of their school's newspaper. Stuck at home, Laski says her daughter also missed out on some academic opportunities.

LASKY: My high school experience was characterized by my work in my high school theater department. And I lived, breathed with those kids.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: The losses are far greater for seniors who have to get jobs to help their parents pay bills or who've lost family members to the pandemic. This year has also been hard on many school staff, like Jaclyn Smith, a school counselor at Clemente High School.

JACLYN SMITH: Part of the satisfaction of the job is seeing a person, you know, smile or have that moment where you can tell that they understand what you're explaining.

CARDONA-MAGUIGAD: With remote instruction, she can't see the students' faces when their cameras are off. Now that high schools reopened, some students want to bring back prom and graduation ceremonies. Schools are allowed to host limited in-person end of the year activities. Smith says she wants to help seniors regain their sense of confidence. She also wants them to experience closure and a chance to say goodbye to their classmates and teachers after a year like no other. For NPR News, I'm Adriana Cardona-Maguigad in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNSQUABI'S "ANYTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.