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Peoria Area School Districts Say Updated COVID-19 Guidance Raises More Questions, Concerns

PPS Administration Building.jpg
Jeffrey Smudde

The release of long-awaited updated COVID-19 guidance for the 2021-22 school year last Friday means districts can begin planning with a greater degree of certainty. However, some Peoria-area superintendents say some questions remain.

The revised protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) will allow fully vaccinated students and teachers to go without masks in most situations.

“That’s huge, (but) that in and of itself though could be a challenge,” said Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, noting the district’s Return To School Committee hopes to finalize its guidelines for the fall semester by the end of July.

“Some of the things I’m concerned about is, how do you police it? How will we be able to determine who is vaccinated and who is not? So that, I believe for us at Peoria Public Schools, the conversation around the masks will be a hot topic.”

Currently, children under 12 are not eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, so Kherat expects those students will still need to wear masks.

“For middle schools that will be interesting, because you not only have 12- and 13-year-olds, but you also have 11-year-olds. So you could see a variety of things,” she said. “At least we have some information and guidance that we can deliberate and discuss as we plan for the upcoming school year.”

Peoria County Regional Superintendent Beth Crider said aside from the mask policy, the updated guidance is largely unchanged from the end of last school year. She said the policies will still require some “refinement” along the way, amid growing concerns about the Delta variant.

“When we’re still thinking about the virus and how it can spread, and the fact that younger people are affected by that quickly-spreading variant, then we still need to proceed with a slight bit of caution,” said Crider, adding she frequently consults with Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson.

“I know everyone wants to go back to some sort of normal, but we still need to show precautions and we still need to keep our students’ and teachers’ and other staff members’ safety in mind.”

Crider was scheduled to meet with several area school superintendents Monday afternoon to discuss the updated guidelines and how to implement them. Ahead of the meeting, Limestone Community High School Superintendent Allan Gresham said he would like to see more clarity regarding social distancing.

“I think one of the biggest challenges that schools face is lunch time,” Gresham said. “What is going to be the recommendations in terms of student seating at lunch time, as everyone will be unmasked obviously eating their lunch? Are they recommending a 6-feet, a 3-feet, that type of thing?”

Gresham said other areas of concern deal with contact tracing and quarantining.

“When we do have a positive student, what is the close contact guidance?” he pondered. “Is it still the 6-feet for 15 minutes for all students? What if one of the students within that range or criteria is a vaccinated student? Are they still recommending that that student be quarantined for the same amount of time?

“We’re still hoping to get a little bit more clear guidance from the health department or the state Board of Education, to give our local school boards just a little bit more guidance as to what is going to be required/recommended, and what’s going to be decisions of more local control as to how we operate on a day-to-day basis here in the building.”

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