STREAMWOOD, Ill. (WLS) -- It's back to school Tuesday for most students in District U-46, Illinois' second-largest school district, which serves parts of Cook, DuPage and Kane counties.
Students returned amid a teacher shortage, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact education.
Nearly 39,000 students returned to the classroom for what will be their fourth school year impacted by the pandemic.
The district covers 11 communities in the northwest suburbs, including Bartlett, Elgin, St. Charles and Schaumburg. There are 40 elementary schools, eight middle schools and five high schools.
Superintendent Tony Sanders said he feels more optimistic this year regarding COVID. Masks will still be encouraged, but not required.
They're also putting a pause on shield testing for students and staff, as they look into other voluntary testing options. Unvaccinated staff members will still be tested, Sanders said.
"I think the more we've gotten into COVID, and vaccinations are widely available, treatments are available, and the continuing easing of restrictions from the CDC and the state are making it easier and easier for schools to feel a little bit more normal," he said. "It just had a much more normal feel to the start of the school year unlike all of our past couple of years."
Several students were wearing masks Tuesday morning.
"For safety and the COVID and everything," sophomore Jason Trajo said.
"They're asking if they want to, to wear them. I told him, if you want to, just wear it and take it. It's safety for them," parent Polo Trajo said.
U-46 is also among school districts across the state that are dealing with a shortage of teachers and bus drivers.
Sanders said they have about 100 teacher vacancies right now, and will continue to look for teachers as the school year gets underway.
He said the district can fill those vacancies temporarily with retirees and long-term subs.
As for bus drivers, they have enough, but are always looking for more.
They've launched a tuition reimbursement program as an incentive to come work as a teacher or bus driver.
In terms of safety precautions, all employees and students will be required to wear their IDs in a visible location.
They also have a system that screens anyone who enters the school and tracks visitors.
The superintendent said they've also significantly increased the number of social and emotional workers and counselors in their schools, recognizing the needs of their students coming out of the pandemic.
At Streamwood High School, students were greeted at the door with a spirited, warm welcome for their first day back.
"I'm happy because they can go back to school and keep enrolling in more stuff," Polo Trajo said.
Parent Darren Nosck agreed.
"It's awesome to have them back -- can finally get some work done during the day," Nosck said.
"I just want to feel back to normal basically. I know that's what a lot of people want to do. I know, like, it's scary out here and everything, but everybody just wants to get back to normal or at least close to it," parent Danielle Brown said.