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Little Rock district shifts course for opening schools

The Little Rock School District has altered plans for the start of school next week by going to a phased reentry schedule, Superintendent Mike Poore announced late Wednesday afternoon.

The one-week plan calls for splitting into two groups the students who signed up for in-person instruction and is a shift from the five days of in-person classes originally planned.

The phased reentry plan for the first week of school comes after Little Rock Education Association President Teresa Knapp Gordon announced Friday night that the employee union members had voted to start the school year teaching only virtually or online, and not teaching students face to face — until the number of cases of the coronavirus declines significantly in Pulaski County.

Specifically, the covid-19 positivity rate in the county — which has been as high as 15% — must remain below 5% for 14 consecutive days, Gordon said.

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Poore said in his video message that the district has been listening to the employees and that the phased-in reentry plan — “a stepping stone approach to the start of the year” — is an effort to avoid “locked horns” with teachers.

“What I’m offering is a little bit radical,” he said of the phased reentry plan.

While he said “deeper thought” must be given to accommodating employees who have severe health risks, the district needs teachers to be at their schools Monday if their job assignment is on campus.

Gordon sent a text message to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday night that she was unable to immediately comment on the reentry plan but that the association membership will meet at 6 p.m. today.

The district’s Community Advisory Board also meets at 6 p.m. today for its regular monthly meeting. The community board serves in an advisory role to Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key, who serves in place of a school board in the state-controlled Little Rock district.

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson — who has mandated on-campus classes starting next week — was asked earlier Wednesday about the Little Rock Education Association’s position on in-person teaching. The governor said he understood that teachers are nervous about the start of the year as is he, but starting school for the year is necessary for students.

About 50% of the district’s more than 20,000 students have opted for in-person classes for the first nine weeks of the school year. The remaining 50% have opted for remote or virtual learning away from the campuses.

According to the reentry plan, of the students who have selected to attend school on campus, only those whose last names begin with the letters A through M will attend school Monday and Thursday in the coming week.

Students whose names begin with letters N through Z will attend Tuesday and Friday, according to the YouTube video and written messages sent out by Poore and his staff.

Prekindergarten pupils will attend school on campus all five days next week.

If a kindergarten-through-12th-grade student goes to school on a day when he is not scheduled to be there, or on Wednesday when no students except the prekindergartners are assigned to the schools, the school staff should still allow the student to attend, the memorandum states.

[DOCUMENT: LRSD Community Memo »]

Households with students who have different last names but attend the same school will be encouraged to use the last name of the oldest child to determine the day of school attendance, the memo further directs.

The messages from Poore do not address what will happen in the second week of school and beyond, although Poore does say that the first week will be “a learning week” for everyone and a time to identify challenges and make adjustments.

Poore also noted in the video that the district has had four cases of covid-19 since the first of August, even as numerous teachers, principals, coaches and athletes returned to the schools to prepare for the official start of the school year.

He sent a separate memorandum Wednesday to district employees in which he was more pointed in his comments.

“Teachers should report to their assigned school and execute in-person and virtual instruction as driven by their teaching assignment,” he said.

“Showing up for work, especially when our students’ well-being is at stake, is the most basic part of an LRSD employee’s job. LRSD has policies in place stating that failure to report to work without permission “‘is grounds for discipline, up to and including termination.'”

And, “we believe the decision of the LREA to promote a work stoppage is premature as we have diligently worked to provide an educational environment that would be in the best interest of students and parents. About half of our students have selected virtual learning, so we will have additional space in our school buildings to maintain appropriate physical distancing,” he said.

Finally, he stated: “Direct refusal or failure to follow a directive or perform a job assignment given by a supervisor or any authorized employee or district representative is insubordination and may result in termination.”

The memorandum also recaps the safety precautions and requirements that are in place and must be followed, including the requirement that staff members wear masks or be considered insubordinate. Students also are to wear masks on campus or be assigned to the virtual education program.

Poore said Wednesday that the Little Rock district has ordered and is receiving some 3.5 million masks.

The safety directives listed in the Poore memorandum are:

• Employees and students who are experiencing covid-19-like symptoms are not to report to schools or any district work sites. Employees should follow advice from licensed health care providers.

• Employees should avoid physical contact with others while on the job. Reduce access to confined work areas.

• Employees and students must wear a face covering and respect a 6-foot physical distancing among themselves and others when feasible. This is a directive for all employees; failure to follow this directive is considered to be insubordination. Procedures for students who fail to follow this directive are outlined in the district’s Ready for Learning Plan.

• Employees and students must comply with the Arkansas Department of Health guidelines during this pandemic.

• The district will continue to work to ensure safe operations, maintain work areas and provide the necessary housekeeping practices for improved safety in the workplace during the pandemic.

The district letter to the community that announced the phased-in plan also addresses the approximately 50% of district students who have opted for virtual instruction.

The focus for the first week of school for those students will be on becoming familiar with the virtual learning process — including how to navigate the learning management system selected by the district for virtual instruction. That is the Schoology system.

“Virtual students will be assigned to a curriculum and instruction staff member who will provide virtual lessons and video conferencing check-ins for the first week,” the memorandum says. “Students will be given daily assignments that help them become familiar with submitting and completing tasks in Schoology.

The district is making plans for those students in the virtual education program to have set times for live conferencing with a curriculum and instruction staff member. On Wednesday, the students home-room and first-period teachers will make contact with their students enrolled in the virtual instruction program.

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