Following a lengthy presentation on Peoria Public Schools’ hybrid return-to-school plans, the District 150 Board of Education Monday night pivoted to opening the academic year with full virtual instruction just nine days before the scheduled start.
“I have serious concerns about the health and welfare of the students, the families, and the teachers,” said board president Doug Shaw. “And I don’t want my decision to put someone into harm’s way. So, I am leaning toward wanting to go virtual.”
Shaw’s preference for starting with the online format amid the COVID-19 pandemic drew full consensus from the other board members.
“When I talked to teachers, many of them said they didn’t sign up to be front-line workers and they feel that’s what they’re being asked to do,” said board member Dr. Anni Reinking.
Superintendent Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat and numerous district administrators presented an abundance of information and fielded numerous questions about the hybrid plan. She said she felt the blended option was sufficient, but understood the board’s position.
“We do have a great plan, but there’s still lots of concerns,” said Desmoulin-Kherat. “Cases are rising in our city; there are lots of unknowns. I anticipate a nervous staff, which I believe would not be conducive to learning, so I support the board’s decision.
The bulk of the more than 5-hour, 15-minute meeting was devoted to providing information on the reopening plan to the board. But several teachers stressed deep concerns about returning to the classroom as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread.
Jeff Atkins-Dutro, president of the Peoria Federation of Teachers Local 780, said he wanted the board to “get a feel for how many unanswered questions there are and so you get a feel for the level of anxiety everyone is experiencing.”
Teachers union members Jennifer Reeder, Heidi Dowell and Lauren Wulf also addressed the board and expressed fear that in-person instruction will lead to increased transmission of the virus.
“I’m not here to say you’re wrong and you didn’t put research into it, but it’s not safe,” said Dowell, an eighth-grade math teacher at Von Steuben Middle School. “We’re concerned that we haven’t been given straight answers.”
Katy Endress, director of epidemiology and clinical services for the Peoria City/County Health Department, told the board the area has seen a “steep and steady rise” in COVID-19 cases.
“With the increasing prevalence of this virus in our community, it is reassuring to know that our public school system has been planning strategies to protect the health and safety of their students and staff for several weeks now,” said Endress.
Board member Dan Walther asked if a classroom or an entire school would need to close if a teacher or a student tested positive for COVID-19. Endress said such an automatic closure would not be necessary if proper distancing and use of facial coverings is followed.
But board member Martha Ross seemed to believe it may be difficult to get students to comply with those distancing measures and wearing masks at all times.
“I can see very easily how this disease could spread,” said Ross, which Endress admitted was a valid concern.
Walther said the district “may have to face a reality” of needing to add more workers to clean buildings regularly and adequately. Chief financial officer Mick Willis responded by insisting the district “developed a plan” to keep facilities cleaned.
Willis said the district already has ordered $850,000 worth of personal protective equipment and received nearly half of that order. He said the current inventory includes 750,000 disposable masks and close to 700 gallons of sanitizer.
Walther wondered if students might need an academic pre-test before returning.
“We’ve had students who have been out of school for six months and I’m afraid we’re going to have some who are a year behind,” he said.
Other reports to the board included updates on staff vacancies, the virtual learning platform, a retreat plan, wellness practices, child care issues and transportation plans. The meeting also included a public hearing on the non-resident tuition waiver for district employees.
The board approved 12 of the 27 items on the consent agenda and tabled the remainder, scheduling a special meeting for 4:30 p.m. Thursday.
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