The Arkansas Education Association has not ruled out a legal challenge to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s recently announced plans to open schools, but boycotts and other disruptions are not planned, according to AEA Executive Director Tracey-Ann Nelson.
Arkansas Secretary of Education Dr. Johnny Key said the opening plan provides flexibility for districts that may need more time to prepare, including acquiring technology equipment for “blended learning” – a mix of in-class and virtual instruction – and gathering personal protective equipment such as face masks.
Opening schools will return hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and staff to more than 1,000 school facilities in the state. During the 2019-2020 school year, the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) reported 479,432 K-12 students, 33,399 teachers and 36,274 staff.
When the plan was announced July 9, Nelson said the move to open schools pushes students and educators into an “unsafe situation.”
“This danger is compounded by the states’ lack of coordinated guidance to districts as they attempt to plan amid constantly changing guidelines that have somehow become politicized,” she noted at the time.
Following is a Talk Business & Politics Q&A with Nelson.
Talk Business & Politics: How many teachers are members of the association?
Nelson: AEA represents both teachers and education support professionals, including bus drivers, custodians, nurses and counselors across the state.
TB&P: Was the association asked by anyone with the Hutchinson administration for input prior to Thursday’s school opening announcement? If so, what was the summary of the input provided?
Nelson: AEA has been in continuing conversation with the Arkansas Department of Education since the start of the pandemic. While we did not know the details of Thursday’s announcement, we were not surprised to learn of the delayed start date based on the challenges facing Arkansas’s school districts.
TB&P: Has the association heard from anyone with the Hutchinson administration after Thursday’s announcement?
Nelson: AEA staff and leadership were in dialogue with ADE this morning (Friday) for a Reopening Schools Feedback and Communications Meeting.
TB&P: Does the association have any plans to legally challenge, on behalf of teachers, any or all aspects of the governor’s plan to open schools?
Nelson: No one wants students to safely return to classrooms more than parents, educators and administrators. However, we can’t allow this common desire to place our children, educators and their families at risk. AEA is a member driven organization, and elected member-leaders guide our strategies. We are currently assessing our member’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs about school reopening and will take further action from there.
TB&P: Are there any discussions within association leadership about boycotts, sick outs, or any other efforts to disrupt return to school plans? If so, please elaborate.
Nelson: We have no desire to disrupt a return to schools, in fact, we are committed to doing everything we can so that all students have the opportunity to safely resume in-person learning. This pandemic has made it painfully clear that educators are invaluable in children’s lives, and that attending school in person provides a wide array of health and educational benefits. We expect educators’ questions and concerns to be taken seriously and fully addressed before schools reopen, so students and educators can return to in-person learning as soon as safely possible.