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Peoria Teacher's Union Raises Concerns About Return-to-School Plan

Jeffrey Smudde

The Peoria Federation of Teachers is going public with its concerns about the March 1 return to school after Peoria Public Schools administration declined to bargain over several issues deemed outside the union's purview.

Jeff Adkins-Dutro is the teachers' union president. He said many teachers won't be able to socially distance their students to the CDC-recommended minimum of 3 feet in the classroom, due to lack of space.

"We have manifold instances where students will not be able to be distanced by 3 feet, let alone 6 feet," he said.

Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said principals are working on those issues within their individual buildings. Potential solutions include moving furniture into storage, installing plexiglas desk shields, or implementing flexible seating arrangements.

"We have prioritized, as from day one, the very beginning, that our return-to-school plan was prioritized around safety," Kherat said.

Kherat noted that of more than 400 COVID-19 tests administered district-wide last week, the positivity rate was 0%. Only two staff and two students are currently out with positive COVID cases, she said.

Adkins-Dutro said other issues were dismissed at the bargaining table by district administration, including the lack of hot lunches, and water fountain shutoffs. Those issues are being looked at outside the collective bargaining process, district officials said Monday.

Kim Thomas, a teacher at Trewyn School and a former Illinois Teacher of the Year, said her students complain their lunches are "gross."

She called on Sodexo, the district's cafeteria food vendor, to do a walk-through of Peoria schools to assess meal quality. Adkins-Dutro went a step further, calling on the district to "oust Sodexo and bring the money back home."

Currently, students eat lunches in the classroom. Mick Willis, the district's chief financial officer, said buying the equipment necessary to serve hot lunches in classes would be cost prohibitive.

"We're trying to work with each of our building principals, and trying to work through students having lunches, social distanced, in cafeterias, and in that way, we'd be able to broaden the variety of lunches that are served," Willis said.

Kherat said water fountains were turned off early in the pandemic, but as more information about COVID-19 and how it spreads via surfaces has emerged, she said that could decision could be reassessed.

Adkins-Dutro called on district administration to sort out the issues now.

"We can't have a wait-and-see scenario," Adkins-Dutro said. "We need plans in place if there is to be a full return."

Hybrid learning ends March 1, with most students returning to in-person class five days a week. Full online learning is still an option for families.

Kherat said the district needs to fully shift its attentions to next week's return to in-person classes.

"March 1st, it's about the kids coming back and getting what they deserve," she said.

"That experience thereafter will enhance opportunities for students to receive one-on-one tutoring, small group instructions, to enhance their learning for the last three months that we will have together with them," Kherat said.

She said the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant learning loss--and the district needs to make up for lost time with students.

"They need to be in the buildings, interacting with their teachers, and their peers. The screen time hasn't been as effective, as we've experienced," she said.

Kherat said the district also plans "robust" summer school in an effort to bridge learning gaps widened over the past year.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.