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PPS Board Gets Update on Return-To-School Plan

The District 150 Board of Education met Monday night.
Peoria Public Schools District 150
The District 150 Board of Education met Monday night.

With younger students ready to start heading back to classrooms in one week, Peoria Public Schools officials continue to gauge the safety of the district's return-to-school plan.

During Monday night’s meeting, the District 150 Board of Education heard that 4% of Peoria County’s 3,519 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been in children under age 10--and that spreading the virus is not common at schools.

“Based on contact tracing, a lot of it in terms of transmission--specifically around primary schools--is not happening in the classroom setting, but rather in the after-school setting, whether it is after-school activities, family gatherings, large get-togethers in which people are not adhering to social distancing,” explained Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson.

After originally moving all instruction away from the schools to start the semester, the board of education approved a plan to bring kindergarten and first-grade students back to class under a hybrid A/B schedule starting Monday, followed one week later by all self-contained special education students.

Last week, the board expanded the plan to have students in grades 2-4 start returning to the classroom starting Oct. 26. Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said she has heard from many parents of older students who also want to see their kids return to in-person learning.

“We get it. We’re working very, very hard,” said Kherat. “In terms of the timeline, it was looking like maybe second semester, but if things go very, very well, we can accelerate it. So it’s so fluid, but we’re working very hard on it.”

Katy Endress, the health department’s director of epidemiology and clinical services, told the board that 520--or about 16%--of the county’s COVID cases have been children between ages 10 and 19. Weekly case counts in that age range peaked two weeks ago at 71, with more than half of those reported at Bradley University.

Hendrickson said schools would only need to revert to closure in the event of an “uncontrolled outbreak” where the health department is unable to conduct proper contact tracing and other mitigation procedures.

“Then that’s a conversation we have with the superintendent as well as a board of education of that school district to talk about closures,” she said. “Often times, the key intermediate that will happen with schools will be doing temporary closings to help with identification and contact tracing.”

Kherat said the administration is hoping to be able to participate in the “Shield Illinois” surveillance saliva testing program developed by the University of Illinois. The rapid-result testing would be for both students and staff and could shorten the necessary amount of quarantining time.

She said currently staff members who display any possible symptoms are kept out of schools for 14 days.

“They can return to work once they receive a negative test,” said Kherat, adding she is exploring funding possibilities for the test. “Now, with testing and the results, the saliva (test) is five to seven hours--versus what we’re currently used to, which is five- to seven-day wait days. So, it would reduce quarantined teachers’ lost work time.”

Budget approval

In another matter, the board held a public hearing before approving a final 2020-21 budget that includes a $4.5 million operating loss. Frequent public commenter Terry Knapp chided the board for neglecting its “fiduciary responsibilities,” while teacher Lauren Wulf asked the board to look into purchasing new math textbooks.

Also as part of the consent agenda, the board approved spending $147,000 on the recommended Black History 365 curriculum--a 15% savings from the regular cost of $171,000. Along with that, the board agreed to a $40,400 expense for the first year of professional development related to the curriculum that could be a recurring expense in subsequent years unless the district is able to secure grants.

Early in the meeting, Andrew Brown was presented with a “Those Who Excel Award” as the student support staff member of the year. That followed a moment of silence requested by Kherat in honor of the four Manual High School graduates who died in a weekend vehicle crash. Kherat said counselors will be available at Manual through the rest of the week.

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Joe Deacon is a reporter at WCBU.