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LRSD group urges ‘patience’ for start

The Little Rock School District’s Community Advisory Board and the Little Rock Education Association union of district teachers held separate online meetings Thursday that were focused on the start next week of the 2020-21 school year at a time of a global pandemic.

The advisory board, which serves as a liaison between the state-controlled district and Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key, quizzed the district staff about the availability of Chromebook computers, teacher job assignments, safety disadvantages to clear plastic walls and curtains, and possible inequity issues between virtual and on-campus instruction.

“I think everybody needs to approach this with a lot of patience and grace,” advisory board Chairman Jeff Wood said at the conclusion of the discussion on the Monday start of school.

The Little Rock Education Association — which voted earlier this month to teach only remotely and not in person in traditional classrooms until the number of covid-19 cases declines — met privately until almost 10 p.m., association President Teresa Knapp Gordon said after the meeting.

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“I will have a statement in the morning,” Gordon said in a text message response to questions about any actions taken by the teachers, particularly any changes in their stance on no in-person teaching.

The association meeting was called after Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore’s announcement Wednesday night of an altered schedule for the first week of school.

That plan is for a phased reentry schedule rather than the five days of in-person classes that was originally planned for about half of the district’s more than 20,000 students. The other students have opted for a fully virtual academic program for at least the first nine weeks of the school year.

Poore said Wednesday and Thursday that the phased reentry plan for the first week — in which only about 25-30 % of students would be in school on any day — was intended as an effort to resolve the dispute with teachers and to identify and resolve problems with the operation of schools, including safety precautions and online instructional platforms.

According to the new plan, district students who have selected to attend school on campus and 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.

Wednesday will be a virtual learning day for all students. Additionally, school buildings will be cleaned that day.

Pre-kindergarten pupils will attend school on campus all five days next week.

Poore has assured parents that if they need to have their kindergarten-through-12th grade students at school even if it isn’t a day on which the student is scheduled to attend, the staff at the schools will allow the student to attend.

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.

Poore said in an interview Thursday that the one-week phased reentry plan was a measured way to “work through the kinks and challenges” so they “don’t become a crisis right off the bat” in the operation of the district in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has resulted in requirements in schools for physical distancing, online instruction and other preventive measures to attempt to contain the spread of the contagious virus that is particularly deadly to older people and people with other health conditions.

“The smaller numbers made sense to me and hopefully get everybody to be a better place,” Poore said of reducing student numbers each day. “The downside to that is that I knew it could present a challenge to parents because they have been planning and this is coming late.”

That is why the district is not closing schools to any student whose parent wants them to be on campus.

The reentry plan announced Wednesday did not include provisions for the second week of school and on into the school year.

Poore on Thursday did not rule out the possibility of continuing the alternate scheduling into a second week.

“We’ll take take stock of how things go next week, look at it and gather input from a lot of different places,” he said in the interview and in the advisory board meeting.

“If we need to take it into a second week, I won’t hesitate to make that recommendation to [Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key]. I’m hoping we can get to a place where after the first week we can say we can move forward but I don’t know that yet. That’s probably frustrating for some staff and some parents, but it’s honest and its trying to provide a real effort to do this right and not put anybody at risk.”

Dr. Jerrilyn Jones, an advisory board member, questioned whether the new schedule in which students would be on campus only two days a week would disadvantage on-campus students versus students learning virtually. Poore and Hope Worsham, executive director of curriculum and instruction, said all students will have tasks to complete, even on days they are not in class.

The superintendent said the district is fairly well prepared for the start of what is an unprecedented school year.

There are a “sprinkling” of job vacancies similar to what there are in any school year. He also said there are 400 fewer pre-kindergarten pupils and 300 fewer kindergarten pupils signed up for the school year. Some teachers in those grades will be reassigned to upper elementary classes.

Poore said he is particularly pleased with the response he is hearing about the Schoology learning management system that will enable students and teachers to assign, complete and track student work whether the students are on campus or at home. All who have worked with the platform find it to be an improvement over systems used when schools closed suddenly in March.

All district teachers have been provided with district-purchased laptop computers — about 2,000 devices. Students are being provided with Chromebook laptop computers but the district is short about 2,000 of the devices that have been ordered but are yet to arrive.

District administrators assured the Community Advisory Board that students who have opted for 100% virtual instruction will have the laptops next week and that on-campus students will have devices soon. Efforts are being made to move devices from schools where there are a surplus to schools that do not have sufficient numbers.

All students are to have the devices so that if it becomes necessary for one or more schools to shut down because of the virus, the students can continue with their school work.

The district is scheduled to obtain but has not yet received 500 hot spots from the state. It has ordered but not yet received 2,500 more hot spots, all to help provide internet connectivity to students in their homes. The district is also working with the city of Little Rock and other community partners to expand access to the internet.

As for personal protective equipment, the district has what is needed for the first semester of the school year, Poore said, although masks, sanitizer and other equipment is continuing to arrive and be delivered to the district’s more than 40 schools.The district has purchased 55 “fogging” sanitizer machines for the different building sites. Custodians have been trained in new procedures for sanitizing schools, he said.

Advisory board member Melanie Fox questioned the district about the decision against using plastic glass walls around student desks. Kevin Yarberry, the district’s director of plant services, said the barriers can hinder safety in the event of a fire and are more of a “feel-good” measure rather than an effective way to block respiratory droplets.

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