Arkansas’ public schools will start classes one-to-two weeks later than scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
State officials said Thursday that schools will open later to give local districts more time to train teachers in technology they’ll use in a blended classroom and online environment.
Schools will also have more time to purchase certain supplies that are in high demand.
Officials also promised to release responses to scenarios that are likely to come up, such as how individual schools or districts will handle extremes ranging from one positive COVID-19 case in one school, to district-wide closures in the event of a large number of cases.
Left unsaid was whether schools will be able to open at all as the number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths continued to climb in Arkansas.
Magnolia schools have been closed to in-person instruction since Monday, March 16. Magnolia High School held its graduation ceremony for 196 seniors on Wednesday night before a slim audience in Panther Arena – two months later than scheduled. Students were limited to three guests each, and graduates and guests wore face coverings and were kept separated to control possible spreading of the virus.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that schools will be allowed to open between Monday, August 24 and Wednesday, August 26.
The Magnolia School Board set the 2020-2021 school calendar last February. Fall classes were planned to start Monday, August 17 with the last day of school set for May 28, 2021. Under state rules, school districts were authorized to start classes as early as Thursday, August 13.
“I appreciate the decision the governor announced today regarding school start date. We understand that this is a fluid situation and plans will change,” Magnolia School Superintendent John Ward said.
“We will adapt our calendars and plans accordingly. We know having our kids back on campus this fall is the best place for our kids and we want them back on campus. This decision will simply allow us additional time to make sure we have every precaution in place for a safe return for our kids, teachers and staff,” Ward said.
He asked parents to complete a survey the Magnolia School District released this week on its Facebook page and district website. The survey asks questions about transportation, health screening, internet access and mask usage.
“We are still in track to release our re-entry plan next week. We will process Gov. Hutchinson’s announcement over the next couple days and release information on how it will affect Magnolia Public Schools,” Ward said.
The decision to push back public school openings is at variance with plans made by public and private universities in Arkansas. For example, Southern Arkansas University moved its first day of fall classes up to Tuesday, August 11. This will enable the university to hold its final day of fall classes on Friday, November 20 – the week before Thanksgiving. The reopening date for the spring semester in January 2021 is being held open.
Hutchinson said Thursday that colleges and universities are operated by independent boards that make calendar decisions. State officials doesn’t anticipate the closure of public schools for the semester at Thanksgiving.
“The (districts) must also be prepare to shift to other instructional delivery methods should the need arise. Of course, that means when there’s a positive case, or whenever you have to take more restrictive measures and you need to go to some level of online instruction or provide that for an option, that’s where the blended instructional environment comes in, and the flexibility for our local school districts,” Hutchinson said.
The state Department of Education has sent out for comments by school leaders a three-tier response system that assumes schools will have students, faculty or staff who will test positive for the virus.
A brief description of the response options:
Limited response – Limited or no closure needed. Infected persons would be subject to contact trading and a 14-day quarantine. Affected schools would reinforce hand hygiene, enforce physical distancing, intensify cleaning and disinfecting, and postpone non-critical events.
Moderate response – This is a situation that may require building dismissal. Schools would initiate blended learning, alter meal locations, stagger schedules and encourage alternative transportation.
Critical response – This is a situation requiring a building dismissal or district closure for an extended period. On-site access would be restricted. Remote learning will be resumed. Events will be postponed or cancelled.
Johnny Key, secretary of the state Department of Education, said that the resources that have been distributed to school districts “will require substantial professional development to ensure all educators have the preparation they need to start the school year and to implement a blended learning system.”
Key said some districts are having supply-chain problems acquiring sufficient personal protective equipment. The delay in the start of the school year is expected to give those districts more time to get equipment and technological tools.
Policies will have to be flexible enough to respond to new information, Key said.
“Administrators must be willing to refine approaches when specific policies are not working,” Key said. “It is critically important to develop strategies that can be revised and adapted depending on the level of viral transmission in the school and throughout the community,” Key said.
There will be differences in the implementation of COVID-19 responses based on rural, suburban or urban locations, he said.
Key also said local districts will decide the circumstances under which mask wearing will be required.