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Many Chicago-area companies feel the pain as students start the year from home

Billy Hinton is normally busy this time of year, fulfilling orders made by schools in the spring for medallions, plaques and trophies from his shop in south suburban Dolton.



a school bus that is parked on the side of a road: The Illinois School Bus Company lot in Crestwood, part of the Cook-Illinois Corporation, a bus contractor to suburban schools on Sept. 3, 2020.


© Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
The Illinois School Bus Company lot in Crestwood, part of the Cook-Illinois Corporation, a bus contractor to suburban schools on Sept. 3, 2020.

But with many Chicago-area schools closed since mid-March and the return of school sports in question, business has been down by about 75%, said Hinton, owner of Trophys Are Us.

Schools make up the bulk of his clients, with athletic directors making orders ahead of each sport season. Each year, Hinton relies on those orders to keep his business running.

“How do you make up for a loss when your business heavily relies on school orders? You can’t do it in a snap of a finger,” he said.

With students largely beginning the year from home, school districts are cutting back and canceling services from photographers, bus companies, trophy makers and food service providers. Some vendors have shifted operations, taking first-day pictures outside and creating boxed meals for students attending class remotely this fall in order to weather the financial challenges.



Approximately 150 full-size school buses at the Illinois School Bus Company lot in Crestwood on Sept. 3, 2020.


© Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Approximately 150 full-size school buses at the Illinois School Bus Company lot in Crestwood on Sept. 3, 2020.

But if remote learning creeps into next year, it might send some companies to the brink of closure.

“I could lose everything,” Hinton said.

Hinton updated his company’s website hoping to attract business from other events that need trophies. But the demand isn’t there, he said.

Trophys Are Us employs three full-time workers, which Hinton kept on after receiving a $28,000 loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, created by Congress to aid small businesses and keep people working during the pandemic.

“It’s kept my employees working, but I’m still not making money,” he said.

As federal aid runs out and Congress remains at an impasse on additional stimulus funding, school vendors are hanging on to the little revenue coming their way.

Cook-Illinois Corp., an Oak Brook-based school bus contractor, is running about 15% of its regular daily routes, John Benish Jr., president and chief operating officer, said.

The company serves more than 70 school districts in the suburbs and operates 18 school bus subsidiaries, including Cook County School Bus Co., Kickert School Bus and RichLee Vans – Aurora.

Busing students to and from school is just part of Cook-Illinois’ business. The company makes additional revenue from transporting sports teams to games and taking students on field trips, Benish said.

“This time of year we would normally be busy, but none of the sports, after school activities and field trips — I’m talking none of those services have been provided,” Benish said.

Over the summer, the company served a limited number of school districts, and it’s transporting a few special education students this fall, Benish said. “It’s been a very tough year,” he said.

Before March, Cook-Illinois had 3,000 employees but furloughed thousands of workers and cut employees’ salaries, Benish said. Now, the firm has about 500 workers, including bus drivers, bus aides who help students with disabilities board the bus, mechanics and administrative staff.

Another segment of workers affected are crossing guards.

Crossing guards are employed by the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, a city public safety agency that includes the 911 dispatch center and helps coordinate the municipal response to severe weather and big events.

Science Meles, executive vice president at SEIU Local 73, a union that represents public sector workers and publicly funded employees in school districts, said hundreds of crossing guards it represents in Chicago are at risk of losing their health insurance benefits if furloughs continue past Nov. 30.

“These workers, who are low wage earners, are the back bone of society. Schools count on them to take care of certain things and keep kids safe,” Meles said.

In a statement to the Tribune, the agency said about 600 crossing guards have been furloughed as Chicago Public Schools start the year online. The agency said it brought back a few workers as private and Catholic schools reopen.

“The city is currently in discussions with union representatives concerning the status of the crossing guards’ health insurance benefits,” the agency said.

The beginning of the school year is a critical time for many vendors, including photographers who take first-day pictures of students.

Color Portraits, a school photography firm in Barrington, has taken first-day photos for about 10% of the roughly 300 north suburban schools it serves, David Burns, vice presidents of sales, said.

Many schools are delaying those services as uncertainty remains about when schools might bring back students.

“We haven’t interacted with schools until the last couple of weeks. Schools can’t commit to when they’ll reschedule,” Burns said.

For the few schools getting pictures taken, Color Portraits implemented a number of safety measures, including shortening lines, spreading out students and photographers, and requiring photographers to wear face masks.

The company, which also prints ID cards for schools, shifted the process for students beginning the school year at home to allow parents to take photos of students and send to the company.

Some schools, including ones with strict visitor policies, are requesting that photographers take photos outside, Burns said. But the coming colder weather will make it harder.

“It is a stressful situation not knowing. … With schools pushing back into October or November, being outside is going to be a challenge. There’s a lot of variables,” he said.

Since March, Burns said about 50 photographers were furloughed between the sister companies Color Portraits and Van Gogh School Photographers, which serves south suburban schools.As business has picked up, about 35 photographers were brought back, he said.

Some vendors have adapted to new services requested by schools as campuses remain closed.

DAI Creative, an apparel and branding shop in the city’s Pilsen neighborhood, is heading into the new school year with about 80% fewer orders from schools, said co-owners Pierre and Linda Papillon.

The company makes school uniforms as well as promotional and marketing materials for the back-to-school season and graduation ceremonies.

In the spring, the company made yard signs, banners, T-shirts and face masks for high school graduations to replace the promotional items schools normally request. At this time of year, DAI would usually be making brochures, physical education and school uniform apparel for students. Now, it’s making “heroes work here” banners to hang outside of schools and appreciation plaques for principals.

“You have to be able to do more than one thing. If we were specialized, we wouldn’t be able to survive,” Linda Papillon said.

The pandemic has also changed how school meals are delivered and prepared.

Contract food service company Elior North America continues to feed school children, including 80% of 200 Chicago-area schools that are resuming classes online, K-12 President Barbara Timm-Brock said.

“We pivoted a lot of our organization to developing the capabilities to pack meals,” Timm-Brock said.

Typically, the company delivers prepackaged meals to schools from its Berkeley facility. But with students at home, the company is making those prepackaged meals into portable cases schools can hand out in bulk for families to pick up, Timm-Brock said.

The company also made cooking instructions in Spanish for some students taking meals home, she said.

Still, with many schools closed, Elior went from serving 250,000 meals each day at 1,900 schools in the U.S. before the pandemic to 130,000 meals per day at 900 schools.

Despite the challenges brought on by school closures, school vendors are hopeful business will pick up. Benish, with Cook-Illinois, said bus routes will be added as more schools return to in-person learning.

“Unfortunately… you only hear about schools not going, but there are so far grade schools, high schools and everything in between going. If the special education students can go, then certainly everybody else can. It’s going to get better,” he said.

abjimenez@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @abdel1019

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