The Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education on Monday (July 20) approved an emergency policy requiring wearing masks and face coverings at school because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The policy states that all students in kindergarten through 12th grade are required to wear a mask while attending school or a school function until the policy is changed by the board. The policy applies to students waiting outside buildings before and after school and at bus stops.
The policy allows for exemptions when students are eating or drinking; when appropriate social distancing is in place as determined by teachers or administrators; for students who have a documented medical condition or disability; in some instances during athletic activities; or because of special behavioral or individualized needs.
“Students who refuse to wear a mask or face covering at school or at a school function under this Emergency Policy shall be subject to discipline consistent with District Policy and exclusion from on-site instruction,” the policy states.
The policy also dictates that all district employees are required to wear a mask or face covering while working or attending a school function in any school building, District facility or other area of a school campus or the District’s grounds. Again there are provisions for several exemptions.
“Employees who refuse to wear a mask or face covering at school or at a school function under this Emergency Policy shall be subject to discipline consistent with District Policy, suspension without pay and/or termination,” the policy states.
The board was also updated on students who have indicated they will enroll in virtual school rather than attend classes on campuses. Earlier this month, the district released its “Back to School: Ready to Learn Plan,” which spells out the district’s plan to blend traditional classroom learning with online courses while also offering programs for exclusively on-line education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
As of Monday, 890 elementary students, 363 seventh- through ninth-grade students and 344 10th- through 12th-grade students have notified the district of their intention to enroll in the district’s virtual school options, said Zena Featherston Marshall, executive director of communications and community partnerships.
The board also approved a revised calendar for the 2020-21 school year that works with Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s order that schools could not start until Aug. 24. Teachers also will have a professional development day March 19.
In order to keep students from attending school into June, the district opted, after much input from faculty and staff, to move most teacher workdays and professional development from during the school year to the beginning of it, said FSPS Deputy Superintendent Dr. Terry Morawski.
With the new calendar, teachers report Aug. 5 and complete 10 work or professional development days before students Aug. 24. The calendar allows for the students to complete their school year May 28, before Memorial Day, as earlier planned. Rather than having a full week off at Thanksgiving, the calendar has virtual teaching and learning scheduled Nov. 23-24 as well as Feb. 15. Students also start back Jan. 4, one day earlier following winter break.
“This allows us to still finish prior to Memorial Day, and we feel like it is a good option,” Morawski said.
Board Member Talicia Richardson asked what ability the new calendar gave the district to pivot if the state required schools to close campuses at any time during the school year. Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker said the district was prepared to make changes or go to fully virtual learning as early as day one if needed. Brubaker said plans were being made in the instance there are confirmed cases of COVID on campus. He said after working with the Arkansas Department of Health, the district has three contingencies: closing a classroom and sending students home for a period of time; closing a campus and using an alternative teaching model for a period of time; or closing all on-site instructing, noting that it was all dependent on the situation.
“The thing to remember is that teachers and principals will not have to figure out what to do, ADH will give us guidance through anything,” Brubaker said.
School Board President Bill Hanesworth asked parents to be patient with the school district through the entire school during a pandemic situation.
“There is no perfect plan. The No. 1 thing is the safety of our students. I just ask you all for patience,” Hanesworth said.