Return to School Committee focusing on education, safety for this fall

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PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — School districts around central Illinois are planning to reopen this fall.

But they’re trying to find the balance between quality education and safety.

“We’re looking at social distancing, hand hygiene, personal protective equipment, and how that would apply to the school day to keep everybody safe,” said Josh Collins, chairman of the Return to School Committee.

COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in school districts’ plans, causing classes to go completely virtual for spring of 2020.

So for the fall, Peoria Public School leaders are looking to get back in-person, but with some major changes.

“One of those things is establishing a quarantine area or a safe area,” Collins said. “If a staff or student member began to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, they could go to that area, be given a face mask, they’d stay supervised. If they were a student, they’d stay in that area until parents could come get them or transportation could be arranged.”

That’s in case a student or staff member is showing COVID-19 symptoms.

Collins says his goal is to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19 and to make it easier for contact tracing if a breakout were to happen.

“If they’re in the classroom, they use one classroom. If they’re in the hallway, they use one hallway, if they use the restroom, the use one restroom,” Collins said.

While this is just a tentative plan, Superintendent Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat says the Committee is learning how best to get kids to and from school.

“Transportation is a huge challenge in a passenger bus for 72 students with the social distancing piece. You have 1 kid in every seat,” Dr. Kherat said.

Dr. Kherat says many people are a part of the planning process currently. Parents, students, board members, teachers, administrators, stakeholders, and principals have all had a voice in this entire process.

She adds Dr. Monica Hendrickson of the health department is involved with us regarding the return to school committee.

“We started in May. There’s been over 60 meetings so far. The idea is to cover every aspect and all the contingencies,” Dr. Kherat said.

Both Collins and Dr. Kherat say they sent out a survey that was taken by over 2,000 people about what format of learning they want to see this fall.

“Around 20 percent of parents want virtual learning,” Collins said.

If virtual learning is chosen by the student and their parents, Collins says the students would get an electronic device to take home, but they’d have to make sure they have internet access.

Collins is also the Director of Transportation for Peoria Public Schools. He says many school bus drivers could choose not to return this fall due to the risk of COVID-19.

“There’s that possibility because a lot of bus drivers, a lot of our staff members, can be retirees. They fall into that group. We always have to plan for the worst case scenario,” Collins said.

Collins says his committee is planning for any scenario, including a school bus driver shortage.

“The 3-tier bell schedule allows us to reduce the number of drivers we need to fulfill our obligations. That way if those worst case scenarios begin to play out, we’re confident we can continue to offer the same types of services we’ve been offering to families,” Collins said.

He says the proposed plan could split students up into A and B groups.

One group would do in-person learning Mondays and Wednesdays while the other group would come to class Tuesdays and Thursdays.

All students would go virtual on Fridays for a 1/2 day, while teachers take a professional learning day.

“We reduced the day to basically 5 hours of class time, half an hour of lunch. Start times will remain roughly the same. We still have the 7:30, 8:30 but we added tier 3 at 9:00 o’clock for our highschool students,” Collins said.

This would get students out of their respective schools by 1:00, 2:00 and 2:30 p.m.

Collins says his committee will present the plan to the Peoria Public Schools Board on Monday, June 22.

While this plan is being put together by the Return of School Committee and needs approval from the Board, both Collins and Dr. Kherat say it’s up to both executive and legislative guidelines by Gov. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

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