With Gov. Asa Hutchinson expected to soon lift the statewide mask mandate in effect as part of COVID-19 precautions, Fort Smith Public Schools has decided to leave their mandate in place at least through the end of the school year.
Deputy Superintendent Martin Mahan said administration has been meeting with building leaders and met with a committee of teachers and parents prior to spring break concerning whether to change any of the staff and student safety component of the district’s Ready to Learn plan submitted to the Arkansas Department of Health prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year. The general consensus has been to keep things as they until the end of the semester, he said.
“There has been a lot of conversation recently in regards to watching the state and federal reaction to the changing dynamic of the data surrounding the global pandemic,” Mahan said during Monday’s (March 29) school board meeting. “All of our principals have stated that they would like to see us proceed with caution. They would like to recommend that we maintain our existing staff and student safety measures outlined in Ready to Learn until the end of the year because of the short timeframe until the end of the year.”
The committee of parents and teachers agreed that they want the district to “proceed with caution and really commit to maintaining those staff and student safety standards,” he said. The safety protocols include directions on arriving at schools, visitors to the schools, food deliveries to the school, personal protective equipment, plastic barriers, masks and social distancing, Mahan said.
Prior to the start of the school year, FSPS issued a news release stating that parents would not be allowed to accompany students into buildings. They will be encouraged to remain in their vehicles when dropping off students. School offices will encourage physical distancing, wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer immediately upon entering the building.
Visitors and volunteers will not be allowed to visit FSPS campuses or interact with students, and the district will work with its Partners in Education and mentors to develop virtual ways partners and mentors can connect with students. Public reception desks at elementary and junior high schools will be equipped with Plexiglass shields. Reception desks at the high schools will be equipped with the shields as office construction projects are completed.
Until further notice, staff and students will not be able to order food from outside food vendors. In the classroom, efforts will be made to provide space for distancing while not limiting students ability to interact with others in the classroom.
Mahan said the mentoring and Partners in Education programs have been limited this school year to virtual opportunities and that would continue until the end of the school year.
“There has been a clear concise message in my eyes that people would like us to maintain the course through the end of the year with our commitments to staff and student safety as outlined in that (Ready to Learn) proposal (submitted to the ADH) with one exception,” Mahan said, noting that student recesses would be changed.
Up to this point, students at recess mostly have been limited to only interacting with students in their classroom. Mahan said they would notify principals that they could change those regulations to allow students who typically recess at the same time to interact with other students at recess at the same time.
“Our principals have done a phenomenal job of keeping them kind of within their class for point of contact measures, which has been a smart move, but there has been some suggestions to moving to a method in which students would still wear their masks outside but be able to intermingle, which will allow them to reconnect with friends in other classes,” Mahan said.
Students will continue sanitation measures as they go out the door to recess and washing hands as they come in and continue to wear masks throughout recess, he said.
“I am of the position that a lot of parents carefully considered what to do with their children both in the fall as well as this semester based on the protocols and procedures that we as a district had in place,” said Board Member Dalton Person. “Those decisions were made for the entire semester, the entire school year by those parents. As such, I believe that we shouldn’t make any real changes until the semester is over. I think the right thing to do would be to reevaluate our ready to learn plan this summer. Take a hard look at how we want to proceed with the fall semester, but what I don’t want to do is make any sudden changes. And I’m glad to hear that recommendation is the same.”