The opening date for Arkansas public schools is being moved forward to the week of Aug. 24. The change is based on “urgent, but reasonable concerns” about some districts not being ready to open by Aug. 13, Arkansas Secretary of Education Dr. Johnny Key said Thursday (July 9).
Opening the schools and plans to deal with COVID-19 positive cases that will happen in the schools were the focus of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s daily COVID briefing. The governor said there is no plan to conduct widespread testing prior to school opening, with testing only on an as-needed basis.
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.
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.
“We are confident from our conversations that many districts will be ready to go on August 13. However, recent feedback from educators, from administrators, from parents and from legislators has indicated urgent but reasonable concerns about some districts to return to instruction on that date,” Key said.
Key also said there is no statewide plan for any teacher shortages, with Gov. Hutchinson saying that response is best left to the districts. Key said there is no consideration to end the school semester at Thanksgiving break, as some colleges are planning to do, and there is no set policy on notifying the community about COVID-19 cases among students and staff. Key also said the state is not requiring districts to submit plans on the use of masks or physical distancing rules.
“It is strongly recommended for mask wearing, but … those local districts and boards can make those determinations based on the unique needs and situations in those districts,” he said.
TEACHER ASSOCIATION RESPONSE
Arkansas Education Association Executive Director Tracey-Ann Nelson said the move to open schools pushes students and educators into an “unsafe situation.”
“The state’s guidance on outbreaks in our schools is acknowledgment that we are attempting to send 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 in a statement. “While some decisions may be more appropriately made at a local level, this virus does not know school district boundaries. There must be a detailed statewide plan that anticipates a number of scenarios to ensure student and school employee health and safety.”
Nelson also said educators have not been part of the discussion on how to open schools.
“Unfortunately, in addition to shifting responsibility to districts, our state officials have also given these districts the ability to cut out teachers and support staff from the decision-making process through a series of statewide waivers. As the people who deal most closely with our kids’ day in and day out, our educators must be included in any decisions about how we safely reopen our schools,” she said.
Link here for the full statement from the association.
THREE RESPONSE LEVELS
Following are the basic response guidelines the ADE is presenting to districts when COVID-19 cases are detected.
• Limited response
Enforce physical distancing
Postpone non-critical school events and gatherings
• Moderate response
Initiate blended learning
Alter meal locations
Stagger class schedules
Encourage alternative transportation
• Critical response
Restrict on-site (campus) access
Pivot to remote learning
Key said each district will have a person to coordinate with the ADE and Arkansas Department of Health to determine the appropriate response level. Gov. Hutchinson also said the ADE is seeking feedback on the response plans and may make adjustments.
When asked why schools are opening with COVID-19 cases estimated to rise in the fall, after closing schools in March with so few cases, Gov. Hutchinson said schools are now better prepared and state officials know more about the virus. The number of COVID-19 cases in Arkansas could reach 150,000 in late October, with hospitalizations ranging between 2,794 and 4,650, according to updated modeling published July 7 by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
“Because we have our infrastructure in place. We have more experience with this virus. We have made adjustments. We are better prepared for the online training and the blended learning environment that’s necessary. And so all of those reasons, it’s just a totally different environment that we have right now versus what we did toward the end of the last school year,” he said.