Chicago Public League Basketball is returning this month in the midst of the pandemic, and while polls show that parents are still unsure about sending their children to in-person classes, schools don’t expect any shortage of participation during what is typically the district’s most popular sports season in boys basketball.

On Feb. 11, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) allowed practices to be held for boys and girls high school sports teams to begin the winter season for bowling, basketball, and badminton, boys swimming and diving, and competitive cheer and dance. 

Although the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) cleared most high school sports to return to games by Jan. 27, 2021, the CPS decision seemed to be tied to the outcome of the negotiations between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which didn’t end until Feb. 8, 2021. The district’s sports director notified schools of the Feb. 11 return date on Feb. 9, the day after the negotiations ended.


The agreement between CTU and CPS sees kindergarten through 5th grade students returning March 1, and grades six through eight coming back to school buildings March 8. 

According to Uplift Community High School Athletic Director Robert Wallace, negotiations surrounding the return to in-person learning didn’t include high school students because of the complexity of their class schedules. However, he doesn’t think the continuation of remote learning for high schoolers will affect student-athlete turnout. 

“Most students are eager to return,” Wallace says. “Some of them are already participating in sports outside of CPS, whether that be AAU or different tournaments. Those things have worked out good for them so far.”

The CPS sports season shutdown alongside schools on March 17, in accordance with the first stay-at-home order issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on March 13.

A CPS poll showed that more than half of high school students planned to return to in-person classes when school buildings re-open, compared to just 33% of their parents agreeing. While conversations around reopening elementary schools centered around concerned parents who vastly refused to send their kids to school regardless of health protocols, Wallace says the high school students he deals with tend to have much more say in the choice to get back in the school building for sports.

“For a majority of our students, specifically, that decision will be left up to the students themselves rather than a parent,” he says. “I also haven’t heard about any parents yet who don’t want their kids coming back for sports. The parents usually just support what the student decides.”

Since players are going to play regardless, what will this season look like? 

CPS’ complete list of guidelines cover tryouts, rosters, in-game protocols, practice protocols, and locker rooms, in addition to the guidelines already set forth as part of CPS’ reopening plan. Some of those guidelines include: socially distanced benches, court cleanings between quarters and mandatory mask-wearing for everyone (including players on the court) at all times during practices and games.

At Simeon Career Academy, head boys basketball coach Robert Smith is cautious, but equally as optimistic as Williams. So far Smith has only had one parent show serious hesitation about allowing their student-athlete back on the court, but he says their concerns about safety were quelled after walking through the COVID-19 guidelines.

“CPS did a good job providing us with the things we needed to start the season off with to make everyone feel safe and comfortable to return. Masks, cleaning supplies, stuff we need,” Smith says. “Coaches and athletic directors didn’t have much say in it but everyone was receptive to the changes at the Zoom meetings they held with all the coaches. I think everyone wants the athletes to be able to play, so our priority has to be keeping them safe. Basketball can be played whenever. Someone’s life? You can’t play with that.”

Games will undoubtedly look different since all contests are limited to a total of 50 individuals including players and staff from both teams, officials, trainers and security. That means no media, no fans and no parents. 

Perhaps the most visually striking change of all will be the wearing of masks in-game, and Smith is confident that his guys are capable of adapting to the new regulations.

“It hasn’t seemed to affect the quality of play statewide. I think our guys are capable of making the adjustments to these guidelines, because they know that it’s the only way they’re going to play,” Smith says. 

Smith hasn’t been in the gym with his team since March 2020, 11 months ago.

“The first day back was definitely rough, though. We need to do a lot of conditioning. We don’t want anybody to get hurt,” he added.

The CPS basketball league is one of the most prominent in the country because of NBA alumni including Kevin Garnett, Patrick Beverly, and Simeon’s own 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose. This pedigree typically serves to lure college coaches to the city to recruit players. Those chances to play in front of recruiters are what secure many of the athletic scholarships that high school players receive. 

Since the pandemic took away their season and all of those recruitment opportunities back in March 2020, Smith says they’ve been considering other ways to get their guys scholarship opportunities.

“It’s better to be safe than to be seen,” Smith says. “We understand that scholarships are tight; the pandemic is affecting the colleges too. So we’ve just been going by word of mouth, reaching out to schools directly since they can’t come see us play. The best thing for them, honestly, will just be playing as many games as possible.”

Conference play begins on Feb. 25 for conferences in the South and Central regions, and Feb. 26 for conferences in the North and West regions.

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.