CHICAGO — Monday was the first day of school for thousands of Chicago Public School students as the district continues to deal with many challenges, from teacher shortages to a lack of bus drivers.

As the 2023-24 academic year began, Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and city school administrators visited various institutions, looking to challenges ahead while exploring new growth opportunities.

Parents and kids said they felt optimistic about the new school year despite some setbacks.

“I’m glad the first day is here because I wanted to come back and see my new friends,” said fourth grader Lyric Ollins.

Johnson, a former teacher with three children attending CPS, presented Home Run Inn pizzas to students at Jackie Robinson Elementary in North Kenwood.  

“Investing in our young people, investing in families, and strengthening education, that is the pathway to success,” Johnson said.

An immediate challenge faces the mayor and city school administrators, however, such as unconditioned hallways, as the Chicago area prepares for a week of excessive heat.

“The hallways are not air-conditioned, but every classroom has an AC unit,” said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, adding that his maintenance teams are ready to respond to any heat emergency.

Another challenge: an influx of migrant students. The district has worked to absorb migrant students from last year’s 5,300 last year, with an estimated addition of nearly 2,000 more this year.

“Our biggest challenge is making sure we are registering the children,” Martinez said. “So we’re taking buses to the shelter to register them.”

Last year’s enrollment of 322,000 students continued a 5-year decline for CPS. But Martinez said “more teachers than ever” are in CPS classrooms.

“The smallest class sizes we’ve seen in a long time,” the CEO added.

CPS leadership pointed to an additional $240 million for the 2023-24 academic year. The money will aid in expanded preschool opportunities, more tutoring services, nurses, counselors, and social workers.  

School administrators also pointed to monetary incentives to lure scarce bus drivers with commercial driver’s licenses. The district is prioritizing bus service to students in temporary living situations and others in need. As a result, families of 3,100 students have opted out of bus service, instead choosing to accept a monthly stipend, according to city school officials.