State of the State 2022: Another school year disrupted by COVID

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 634 views 

Arkansas’ public schools are now in their third school year that’s been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but educators at least now have plenty of practice, and they have federal dollars to help them deal with the learning loss that’s occurred.

Arkansas schools sent all their students home at the end of the spring 2020 semester when Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared a state of emergency, but the state chose to open all its schools to in-person learning in 2020-21. In the fall semester of 2021, 64% of students were learning onsite, while 22.3% were studying remotely and another 13.5% were engaged in a hybrid model.

This year, only 4% of the state’s public school students are attending school using digital learning plans, and only 165 of the state’s school districts submitted plans that were approved through the State Board of Education.

The rest did not submit a plan because they don’t believe remote learning serves students as well as in-person classes do, Secretary of Education Johnny Key said in an interview. Many of the districts that do have digital learning plans have placed a cap on the number of students involved.

“Generally, we know that kids in a classroom with a teacher, with support staff, with all the things that a school district brings to bear to address their needs, that’s where we’re going to see a better benefit,” Key said.

The numbers would seem to confirm that observation. Based on end-of-the-year assessments, graduation rates and other indicators, only 12% of districts showed improvements in overall achievement and growth compared to 2019 before the pandemic occurred. Students skipped the end-of-the-year assessments in 2020.

Schools and the state of Arkansas have received $1.76 billion through the various federal packages passed by Congress during the pandemic, of which $561.44 million has been spent. Schools have three years to spend the remaining $1.2 billion. Part of that money is meant to address learning loss. Districts are required to create their own plans, which must be updated every six months.

“That’s why there wasn’t a grand state plan to say, ‘Districts, you need to do this, this and this,’” said Key.

In addition to learning loss, COVID mitigation has been a big expense and is being funded partly through the $1.76 billion in federal funds. Districts are spending money on technology, ventilation and filtration, and on building additional spaces to spread students out. Some districts are using some of their funding for continuing operations like paying teachers for the additional work they’ve been doing.

Mike Hernandez, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said when the pandemic first struck, school districts were trying to figure out how to respond. As time has passed, they have fortified supports for remote learning and employed mitigation strategies such as masking, distancing and sanitizing.

“I feel like that we’re starting to kind of gain our footing a little bit in terms of trying to educate during a pandemic,” he said.

With infection rates soaring across the state this January, some districts have been forced to temporarily send students home again. The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement announced Jan. 13 that 226 of the state’s 234 school districts are located in communities with 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 residents over a 14-day period.

Schools have also had to reassess their mask requirement policies. According to ACHI, as of Jan. 13, 56 school districts and public charter schools mandated mask wearing, while 35 had partial requirements. On Jan. 5, 46 had full mask requirements and 26 had partial ones.

Key said this school year has been going smoother than the previous one. Last year when many students were learning at home across the state, teachers were pulling double duty and teaching both in person and remotely.

That reality has worsened the state’s challenging situation with recruiting and retaining teachers – particularly in the state’s struggling areas like the Delta and the mountainous north. Because teachers typically work within 50 miles of where they grew up, Key said the department is encouraging school districts to grow their own future educators among their students.

While federal funds have been used to compensate teachers in some districts, Key said money alone won’t address burnout.

“That will be a challenge I think that could stick with us for longer than the effects (of the pandemic) on students,” he said.

Hernandez said finding personnel overall is an issue – not just with teachers but also with classified staff. Schools struggling to find employees cannot do what a business would do and quickly raise salaries to attract new workers.

Still, money helps. This being an off-election year, the House and Senate Education Committees are meeting jointly to prepare the state’s biennial adequacy report that sets the stage for the school funding matrix. The Legislature in 2021 increased total per pupil funding by 2.3% over each of the two years of the biennium, the most it had done in at least a decade. It also set a target median teacher salary of $51,822 and provided funding to districts with median salaries below that amount to help them reach it.

Key said Gov. Asa Hutchinson has made it clear to the committee chairs that Arkansas should keep moving forward regarding teacher salaries. No adjustments were made to minimum teacher salaries from 2009-14, which put the state behind, Key said. Lawmakers also will need to consider the impact of the inflation cycle, he said.

K-12 education is by far the largest area in the general revenue budget. Hutchinson on Jan. 11 recommended spending $2.32 billion in general revenues for the public school fund, an increase of $69.6 million, as reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Lawmakers will meet starting Feb. 14 in their even-numbered-year fiscal session, which focuses on budgetary matters.

Schools and school boards have faced increased controversy and public scrutiny, particularly regarding mask mandates that have divided communities. Normally quiet school board meetings have attracted larger crowds, with patrons speaking for and against the mandates. The National School Boards Association last year sent a letter to the Biden administration requesting federal assistance to protect board members and educators, a move that led to significant blowback and led Arkansas and other state associations to withdraw permanently from the NSBA.

Key said such divided school board meetings are just part of the process.

“The last several years, we’ve had some pretty heated State Board meetings, and folks get very vocal,” he said. “They get very passionate. They can sometimes be very demanding. But I don’t see that as politicization. … It’s something that we can expect because a school board is a political entity.”

Editor’s note: Link here to connect to the State of the State section.