Virtual option not allowed for all Fort Smith teachers with Dec. 7 professional development day

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,192 views 

A virtual option for a planned large Fort Smith Public Schools professional development event scheduled for Dec. 7 will only be available for participants needing to quarantine during the event.

School officials originally told Talk Business & Politics a virtual option would be available for all. However, a social media response indicated that the teachers were told a virtual option was not available for all. The school district on Tuesday (Dec. 1) confirmed to Talk Business & Politics that what the teachers were told is correct.

The district plans to hold a middle school kickoff professional development Dec. 7 in person even though total COVID-19 cases in Arkansas rose by 38.5% during November. The kickoff was originally scheduled for April, but was postponed because of the COVID pandemic, said Dr. Ginni McDonald, FSPS director of secondary education. The kickoff will include several professional development workshops designed to help prepare teachers for the new middle schools that will emerge with the 2021-22 school year.

In November, COVID-19 deaths rose by 26% throughout the state, known active cases were up 56%, hospitalizations rose by 54.5%, and ventilator use rose by 69%. Hospitalizations reached another daily record Tuesday (Dec. 1) of 1,074, up 11 from Monday, according to the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH). And of the 1,147 ICU beds statewide, only 72 were available, according to the ADH.

In Sebastian County, there are 616 total COVID cases with a total cumulative 7,122 cases in the county, according to the ADH website. There have been 119 deaths. The FSPS district has had 497 total cumulative COVID-19 cases, according to the Arkansas Department of Health Educational Institutions Report from Nov. 30. Of those, 347 were students and 138 were faculty and staff. There are 48 active cases.

FSPS is a red district, meaning the new known infection rate in the past 14 days is 50-99 per 10,000 people, living in the district’s boundaries. It is the second-highest coding rank, with purple being the highest. A purple district indicates a new known infection rate of 100 or more per 10,000 people. The ADH site indicated eight districts marked purple as of Nov. 23.

About 150 teachers have already signed up for the in-person conference, which will be held at the Fort Smith Convention Center. The district said earlier that the conference would be live-streamed as well. They clarified Tuesday the event will be live streamed for staff who are registered for the event but are in quarantine. All other staff who have registered to attend will attend in-person. Quarantined staff will be provided information to access the live-stream, said Christina Williams, coordinator of public information for the district.

“If conditions require the district to pivot to remote learning on Dec. 7, the event will be entirely virtual for all participants. If we do have to pivot to an entirely virtual event for all participants, we will communicate with participants on how to access the event virtually,” Williams said. “At this time, staff members who have registered to attend the event and are not in quarantine at the time of the event will continue with attending the event in-person.”

The ADH has approved the event, and safety precautions will be taken, according to district administration. Those precautions include:
• All attendees will be screened before entering (temperature and questionnaire);
• Attendees will have minimal movement and assigned seating;
• All attendees will sit two people to each eight-foot table;
• Masks will be worn when moving around the building. Masks may be taken off while distanced from other learners;
• Lunch will be served to attendees at their seats; and
• Only one group will move to another room. All others will remain in the same seat all day.

Some FSPS teachers reached out to Talk Business & Politics with concerns over the event, especially considering that some attending may have traveled for the Thanksgiving holiday and could be incubating COVID at the event, which will falls 11 days after Thanksgiving. A seventh-grader teacher in the district noted that safety precautions they were given include allowing participants to remove masks at a distance of less than six feet. The teachers did not want their names used in order to avoid any repercussions.

“Two people at an eight-foot (table) does not mean six feet distance. Bodies occupy a lot of space,” the teacher said.

In August, FSPS will open new ninth-grade centers at Northside and Southside high schools as part of the district’s 2023 initiative. All four of the district’s junior high schools will move from serving seventh through ninth grade to having sixth through eighth-grade students and will be renamed middle schools. The event is designed for training and information designed for that transition.

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