PEORIA — Central Illinois will soon have a new television station devoted specifically to helping kids continue to learn during the COVID-19 shutdown.


Starting later this summer, WTVP REMOTE will be broadcasting at 47.5 over-the-air, so even kids without internet service will have access.


Beth Crider, regional superintendent of the Peoria Regional Office of Education, came up with the idea while helping distribute meals to Peoria Public School students after schools shut down in March.


"The equity issues that we saw there were overwhelming," said Crider. "We found families who not only didn’t have a device, they didn’t have anything. They didn’t have school supplies, they didn’t have any way to engage in a learning activity. So my brain started spinning and I thought of WTVP."


Broadcasting to a 90-mile radius around their Downtown Peoria studios, WTVP reaches more than 200,000 households in a 20-county region of central Illinois. Crider reached out to superintendents of other districts within those counties.


"Jodi Scott is the regional superintendent just to the (northwest) of me. She’s Henderson, Mercer, Warren and Knox counties. I explained the idea to her and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, Beth, my rural counties sometimes can’t even get broadband, but they can get TV.’ So I started reeling ‘em in like fish. At first they thought I was a little delusional, but once we got all the donors in place, they were all in. Because they know in their areas -- it’s a city problem, it’s a rural problem with broadband, it is an exhausted parent problem, it is all things."


It was not hard to sell the idea to WTVP.


"A big part of WTVP’s mission for 49 years has been to serve as a quality educational resource for the community. We do that every day on our flagship station, PBS Kids, Create TV and World," said WTVP president and CEO, Lesley Matuszak. "This takes our commitment to education to a whole new level. It is the right thing to do for the children, parents and educators who are working so hard to stay engaged through remote learning. There couldn’t be a better time for WTVP to acquire the technology and form the partnerships to make this happen."


WTVP REMOTE will be funded by educational entities, major donations, and grants. People who donate to WTVP during their periodic donor drives will not be asked to support WTVP REMOTE, said Matuszak.


The plan is to have the new television station up and running by the beginning of the school year. Even after the shutdown ends, WTVP REMOTE will continue to air content vetted by area school officials 24/7.


"It will still be there for anyone to use. We have a lot of children who are homeschooled, and we have a lot of families who are telling us they are going to choose a more remote learning option because they are not ready to come back to school - their child is medically fragile, they have a family member that is medically fragile, and cannot be exposed, or they are just worried. It will be available on nights and weekends, it will be available for snow days. It will be available for Christmas break. So there’s always gonna be this opportunity to engage in some kind of learning."


Local educators are already working on programming for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Many of the programs will come from the PBS digital learning library, but eventually local educators may also help produce programs. Parents will get guides which will note what grades each program is appropriate for.


No one knows what’s going to happen this fall. Students might go back to school, and they might not. Though a television station can’t begin to replace the experience of learning in a classroom, it’s a good option in a difficult time.


"Can we pick up where your algebra class left off? No. We simply can’t coordinate that for McLean County and Peoria and Lasalle-Peru. But if we could offer content that is standards-based for kids whose only option is to flip on the TV, then we got something good," said Crider. "There is nothing like the art of teaching -- it’s that human connection, it’s that building of a relationship, and it’s that emotional support, and a TV can never do that. We can put Daniel the Tiger on the TV and he’s teaching about social emotional learning, but it’s not the same as a caring and loving adult. So is it a way to provide a solution? Yes. Does it replace teaching? It just can’t. I cannot tell you how badly teachers and principals want to go back to school. It’s unreal."


Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.