With a new academic year less than two months away, school districts in Pekin, North Pekin and South Pekin are finalizing their back-to-school plans.


Pekin District 108 Superintendent Bill Link; Pekin Community High School District 303 Superintendent Danielle Owens; North Pekin-Marquette Heights Superintendent Bryon Sondgeroth; and South Pekin Superintendent Seth Mingus all indicated that their districts expect to have plans ready by the end of this month.


"Our district has a transition team that has been meeting throughout the summer," said Mingus. "We have had very productive meetings, and we are close to finalizing a plan."


Owens said that a District 303 administrative team assembled this week to draft a strategy for the school year. She anticipates that the plan will be fluid until classes actually start.


"We have spent a lot of time going over the guidance, having conversations with our feeder schools, surveying our stakeholders, and also reading/studying other (districts’) proposed plans up to this point," she added. "Our goal is to create a comprehensive plan that can be adjusted when need be. This year is going to be challenging in every aspect … more so than any other year, I believe."


The North Pekin-Marquette Heights administrative team also met this week, according to Sondgeroth, and a transition team will meet next week. District staff members are in the process of reviewing guidelines from the state, as well as receiving feedback from students’ parents through an online survey the district administered last week. One survey topic that appears to have generated some debate was the district’s mandate that masks be worn in schools.


"It is clear from our parent survey that parents have different opinions on this mandate," Sondgeroth said. "Many parents are appreciative of the opportunity to send their children back to school with masks while others have strong opinions against wearing masks."


According to Link, District 108’s goal is to have students back in classrooms for the new school year while complying with requirements and guidelines from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). School districts do not have the authority to waive IDPH or ISBE requirements.


"We appreciate the patience and flexibility of our families as we work to start up school and keep everyone involved as safe as possible," said Link.


Link added that when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of schools in March, District 108 had not had time to prepare a plan for remote learning. Initially, the district had to provide students with printed packets for remote learning activities. District staff was later able to deploy a technology-based learning platform for third- through eighth-grade students. The district also distributed wireless tablets and mobile hotspots to families that requested them in order to participate in remote e-learning activities.


"Although our remote/e-learning efforts were far from perfect, our staff rolled up their sleeves and did all they could to engage students and maintain a level of continuity in their learning by keeping in contact with them on a daily basis," Link stated. "The staff at each of our schools worked together, regularly using virtual meeting technology to plan and coordinate instruction and problem solve. Our principals regularly made home visits to check on students who were not responding to remote learning contact from their teachers."


Anticipating challenges for the upcoming school year as COVID-19 remains a public health threat; North Pekin-Marquette Heights has ordered hundreds of student devices and cases, along with laptops and educational software for teachers, according to Sondgeroth. The district has also begun purchasing what he described as "an abundance" of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.