Dr. Jason Reynolds

PUSD Superintendent Dr. Jason Reynolds led a board meeting discussing the use of COVID-19 data regarding potential closure of classrooms.

The Peoria Unified School District board held a special meeting Jan. 13 to discuss the use of COVID-19 metrics being used to determine in-person and virtual learning.

The board meeting was informational, with no votes by the board members, but the community weighed in through online comments. 

At its Dec. 10 meeting, the PUSD Governing Board voted unanimously to keep classrooms open after winter break “regardless of the benchmark data.”

The district closed 13 PUSD schools Jan. 11 after a teacher “sick out.”

Peoria Unified School District was one of the few public school districts to keep classrooms open after winter break. In the first week since, COVID-19 cases in the PUSD surrounding community increased by more than 50%, nearing 1,000 per 100,000 population over seven days. (Anything over 100 cases per 100,000 is considered “substantial spread.”)

With winter break ending and kids back in school, parents and teachers in the community voiced concerns and support about the board’s decision to dismiss the metrics.

For nearly 30 minutes, emails were read at the board meeting, which was held virtually.

Some supported the board’s decision to continue keeping classrooms open, and “families have the freedom of choice,” as Emily Wagner said.

“Kids need to be in class, and if you wish to stay home then stay home. Children thrive in class versus sitting at home staring at a computer for six hours,” Jennifer West said. 

Others criticized the board and asked it to reconsider its decision to keep classrooms open regardless of COVID-19 data.

Trina Berg, president of the Peoria Education Association, said there were more than 1,000 signatures on a petition supporting “metrics to be put in place.” 

Most community member comments agreed that virtual learning is not ideal for neither students nor teachers, but many commented that they felt misled when the board dismissed the metrics they said would be considered.

“There could have been at least a two-week break. … I feel lied to,” Jessica Shelton said.

“As a parent and teacher in the district I felt safe coming back into the classroom and sending my children because I trusted the school district to follow the metrics. The change was made after the cutoff date for switching my children or with enough time for me to apply to an online position,” Shelton said. 

“One the reasons people in our community and many teachers have become so upset is due to the fact that the board was disingenuous and misled those under their care and guidance.” Robert Taylor said in his comment. 

“As a parent I felt betrayed,” Amy Witters said. “When you asked me to make the decision there were safeguards in place. Once my decision was made and numbers started to creep up you threw those safeguards out the window.”

PUSD Superintendent Dr. Jason Reynolds thanked the board for the special meeting “so we can discuss how we continue to monitor our health data to determine what learning model is appropriate with each one of our schools.”

After the Dec. 10 board vote, “We have heard from our community in a variety of ways.”

He noted the decision to open up in-person learning districtwide was based on a policy that “allows the superintendent to suspend in-person learning at schools if there is an emergency.” He noted the PUSD website offers a dashboard that tracks cases in the district daily with new features like a percent positivity rate tracker. 

“That is the percent of teachers and students and staff who have identified as a positive case on their campus, and that is relative to only the people that are attending those schools,” Reynolds said. 

Reynolds gave a presentation on “factors to adjust the learning model within a classroom, grade level or school.” He highlighted:

Community spread.

 

Cases identified, weekly percent positivity and outbreaks determined by the county.

 

Social, emotional and academic growth.

• Classrooms impacted.

• Percent absenteeism.

 

Model of instruction and mitigation strategies.

These metrics are provided by the county and are what PUSD is using to assess in-person options. 

“It’s not as simple as saying if you reach this percentage then you should do X,” Reynolds said, “What they recommend is that you look at all of these factors and you consider them all in your decision making.”

While it hasn’t happened yet, Reynolds said if the percent positivity rates approach 1%, he would consider closures. 

The district gives students the option of attending school in classrooms or online.

Currently, 27,215 students are attending in-person classes, with 8,245 students attending virtually. 

For the week ending Jan. 15, the PUSD COVID-19 tracker shows 125 students with COVID-19 (including 13 at Liberty High, 10 at Peoria High and 15 at Sunrise Mountain High), which would be about 0.5% of the 27,215 on-campus students.

For the same period, of the 8,245 students who have chosen virtual learning and are not on campuses, there were 69 reported COVID-19 cases last week. 

According to the tracker, 40 teachers and other district employees reported COVID-19 last week.

Reynolds said he remains committed to communicating closely, frequently and accurately with schools to determine the safest learning model for students and teachers. 

The PUSD board had a regularly scheduled meeting Jan. 14. There were more public comments at this meeting on COVID-19 metrics and classrooms.

Berg, the president of the teachers’ association, said, “I think it’s possible we’re not as far apart as we might be.”

She asked for transparency “to let us know there is something in place. If we reach these different points we will look at closing classrooms.”

More parents and teachers spoke, some in favor of closing classrooms and others criticizing the teachers who staged the sick out.