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Q&A: Desmoulin-Kherat Discusses Return-To-School Plan

Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat.
Tim Shelley
Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat.

After starting the school year with full remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Peoria Public Schools last week announced plans to start bringing some students back to the classroom.

District 150 Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat spoke with Joe Deacon about the reasoning behind the return-to-school plan in an interview for WCBU’s On Deck. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Listen to the conversation

Joe Deacon: What prompted the willingness to pursue this return to school for certain students right now and why you feel this is safe?

Kherat: We have been monitoring the COVID-19 metrics for some time now. I have a committee that's just dedicated to that, and we're looking at the trends and it's trending in the right direction. So that was one of the reasons I decided to go back to the board and say, ‘Hey, there's an opportunity for an advancement of bringing in the younger ones,’ specifically kindergarteners, first graders, self-contained special education individuals, students because they are most in need. And it's just so difficult to teach reading fundamentals via computers.

In addition to those metrices moving in the right direction or trending in the right direction, we have about 900 students, from the beginning of school Aug. 24, who have been receiving in-person instruction, our pre-K Valeska Hinton or career technical education students at Woodruff, our ELL students at a number of our schools and a couple of other smaller special programs … and those have been implemented with great, great, great, great success.

In what ways do you expect this reopening plan will establish guidelines for expanding the reopening to the higher grades?

Kherat: We feel very, very strong and optimistic about advancing and phasing in kindergarteners, first graders, special ed self-contained students.

Remember, it's the hybrid model still, which was our return-to-school model initially that we spent all summer long building. What that means is it's again a significantly lower number of students. So the idea is we will model how it goes with those grade levels, how it's going with kindergarteners, and the teachers and staff and so forth. And we will monitor these groups and with successful implementation, the idea is to phase in other grade levels.

Because, I know I'm hearing, ‘What about second graders and what about third graders and what about fourth graders?’ and I would like to actually see all of the primary kids come back as soon as possible, but we have to be safe.

The plan is built around safety and we will progressively phase in upon successful completion and implementation, obviously, hoping that our numbers as a county, positivity numbers and cases, continue to decline. We would like to see below 5% (positivity). We'll implement and continue to monitor, and also monitor (our) own cases as a district to ensure that we're in a good place.

And we do have a retreat plan, and it's, it's very powerful and very robust. So we can kind of go back and forth if we have to, and we feel really good about that.

What input and feedback have you gotten from the Peoria Federation of Teachers and how receptive are they to getting back to the classrooms?

Kherat: We're definitely having conversation, and actually I gave them a compliment at the board meeting. We have been working collaboratively throughout this entire journey. We've had lots of meetings, probably over 20. I would say they're receptive.

Number one, for me, transparency is important. Communication is important. Collaboration is important. This is a stressful time for everybody, and so the idea is to ensure that we're all on the same page.

How has the remote learning been working so far this semester, and how has attendance and participation been?

Kherat: It has been working very well; the attendance has been great. Overall, there were schools in the 90s and in the 80s. So, I would say I'll give ourselves as a district regarding remote attendance, I would give us a B grade. There were, I think, two to three schools, their attendance were higher than pre-COVID.

But the majority of schools, they're lower, a little bit lower or some lower, and which is to me very understandable. Because, you know, after all we are in a global crisis, a global pandemic. Some people expect everything to be the same and to be normal, and that's just not not feasible.

But we're working very, very hard; the principals, I'm so proud of them, and staff at each building. There is a web of individuals or group of individuals dedicated to just going out if individuals are not engaged, going out to see, you know, what's going on, and if the kids are fine, if they need additional support, whether they need a stream or computer or they're having challenges.

There's there just so much frustration going on, and I hear the stories every day. Despite all of that, I am super proud of the staff of Peoria Public Schools. Even remotely, a large number of teachers are doing the very, very best that they can and they're doing amazing work.

But especially the lower-level ones, they definitely would prefer, I would say, to be back in person so that they can, you know, continue to develop relationships with the children and provide the education that they were trained to do in that manner in person rather than remotely.

We learned a lot from sheltering in place in March, and we have definitely made a lot of progress. And I've heard that from parents and teachers and students.

So the idea is if we can phase some in, in a progressive manner, and keeping an eye on how we're doing as a county with positivity, cases, we will continue to slowly bring all of our students and staff back.

There was a presentation at the board meeting about the updating Black history curriculum. What are your thoughts on the committee's recommendation?

Kherat: I am very, very excited about that. It is a piece that that needed to be improved. We have an African American Studies class at the high school, and the content is very limited. So the work that this committee has done so far is pretty impressive. They’re looking at a curriculum that will be very comprehensive.

So, the whole idea is to teach the kids about the past and really a much more authentic and real representation of what happened, with the idea that they can play a role in building a better future for all. And, and the idea is that everyone will be strengthened with this, you know, with this new knowledge.

An initiative is underway looking into renaming a number of the district's facilities. What do you know about how that process is coming along?

Kherat: I am not part of that committee; that’s a board-driven committee. Honestly, I have been so busy with the return-to-school on the advancement plan. The board has about five or six committees; they kind of pick their items to focus on and do all of the research and all of the work and then would eventually bring a recommendation to me or say, ‘OK, this is what we want to do.’

So, what are your thoughts about the possibility of renaming some of these buildings?

Kherat: I have been thinking a lot about that, and I think it's worth having that discussion, for sure. We will see with the recommendation that will be presented. But it's definitely worth the conversation. I mean, why not have a conversation about the truth? So, we need to start talking and hopefully this is what will come out of this committee.

I know they're all sides, right? It's like, ‘It is what it is, leave it the way it is’ and that's one train of thought, and then another train of thought is let us have a conversation about the ‘why.’ And that's how progress is made. I don't know if there's any wrong or right answers necessarily. We just have to study it and learn about it, and then individuals can make up their minds.

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Joe Deacon is a reporter at WCBU.