School officials are planning for the upcoming school year using guidance from the Arkansas Department of Education saying they should consider having students wear masks in classrooms and on school buses and practice social distancing in the cafeteria.
The Arkansas Ready for Learning model says schools must be ready to provide blended in-school and online instruction that allows students to continue learning. Schools that were closed the past two months were encouraged to focus on reviewing material rather than teach new concepts.
“I’ve expressed that we’re going back to school next year, planning on that,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during his press conference Wednesday (June 10). “They’re building a blended teaching environment of in-classroom instruction with utilization of online instruction, and they’re all preparing for that. There are working sessions going on. There’s details that still have to be worked out such as transportation. … It’s a work in progress with everyone planning on being open.”
The Department of Education says “it is expected” that school districts will apply the most updated Department of Health guidance “to the maximum extent practical.”
Schools will be expected to teach grade level standards using blended learning, with diagnostic assessments of students in grades K-8 provided three times a year. Funding through the $2 trillion federal CARES Act will pay for a digital curriculum that districts can choose to use and customize. The Arkansas Public School Resource Center is working with the Department of Education and Lincoln Learning Solutions to provide the online learning plan at no cost to schools.
In addition to academics, the 26-page Arkansas Ready for Learning model provides guidance on a variety of district operations. In the classroom, schools may require staff and students ages 10 and above to wear face coverings. Students ages 10 and above could wear a face covering while on the bus, while younger students could do so when practical. Schools also could require students to maintain a six-foot distance while waiting for the bus to arrive. Schools may stagger meal times so that cafeterias are one-third to one-half full and may also serve lunches in classrooms. Students could be prevented from self-serving meals or collecting eating utensils in ways that allow them to touch other students’ utensils. Schools could modify spaces to allow as much physical distancing as possible, schedule restroom breaks so students don’t congregate, and consider suspending water fountain use.
Dr. Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said the Arkansas Ready for Learning model is a set of guidelines, not requirements.
“You have the health guidelines that in an ideal world, you would be doing XYZ, and in a realistic world, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “They will do the best they can following as many guidelines as they humanly possible can, but there’s some of them (that are) just not going to be feasible where you can do that.”
Abernathy said surveys by superintendents have indicated many parents aren’t planning on sending students back to school physically, so school districts are planning for a considerable amount of virtual learning. Schools will have to bridge the learning gap that has occurred during the past few months and provide an education that goes beyond just reviewing materials.
“We’ve got to teach kids, and so absolutely, we’re moving forward with new curriculum and new instruction and new methods of delivery, but we’re going to be teaching kids,” he said.
Abernathy said schools have spent a lot of money on digital devices and networks, but the biggest problem is the fact that many students do not have broadband internet access at home. He said Marion Superintendent Glen Fenter had wanted to purchase mobile hotspots but learned cell phone service was inadequate to make them work.
In addition to students, a major concern will be the health of staff members who are older and may have other health issues or compromised immune systems. Abernathy said many bus drivers do that job for insurance benefits because they or their spouses have a health issue, but they may not want to take a chance by coming to work.
Schools will have to make difficult decisions about investing in personal protective equipment. Abernathy said Bryant Superintendent Karen Walters said her district would have to spend half a million dollars to do so, but she wondered if the guidelines might change by August. But Abernathy said if the district doesn’t order the equipment, it will look unprepared and perhaps won’t be able to purchase what it needs.
In Bentonville, the district has appointed a task force involving medical personnel, a Walmart vice president, the chief of police and others. So far, it has met twice on Fridays and was planning on meeting Friday to finalize plans on face masks and to consider other issues. At this point, all students age 10 and above will wear face coverings when using district transportation and in school when six-foot distances aren’t possible, and that includes in classrooms.
“If the (Arkansas Department of Health) guidance changes or becomes more flexible, then so will we, and we just have to be flexible to change during this time,” said Superintendent Dr. Debbie Jones.
Jones said parents will be responsible for screening their students, and the district will have to trust them because it’s impractical for the district to screen all of them as they come in the door.
The district will spend $70,000 on hand sanitizer to make it available at buses, classrooms and offices. It has ordered personal protective equipment, but it’s also asking staff and families to become more comfortable with fabric masks because it doesn’t know if it will be able to order enough supplies.
Also affected are student activities such as band, choir, and football. Jones said the Arkansas Activities Association’s restrictions are working well so far. Players are distanced in the weight room and wearing masks when not lifting. But she doesn’t know what’s going to happen as the state moves into its next phase of reopening.
For now, Bentonville and other districts must continue to prepare for the new year.
“It’s very likely that some of our kids or all kids in school may get ill, and we’re going to have to be able to respond pretty quickly to that,” Jones said.