LITTLE ROCK — A standoff that began Friday night continued into Monday between Little Rock School District teachers and the leaders of the state controlled-school system — just a week before the 2020-21 school year is to start in the district.
Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association, announced Friday that the union members had voted to only teach virtually when school starts — refusing to return to in-person teaching until the Pulaski County covid-19 positivity rate remains below 5% of those tested for 14 consecutive days. To teach students in person would endanger students and teachers, she said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said at a news briefing Monday that he is seeing a downward trend in the spread of the virus and that he was disappointed by the Little Rock organization’s call for virtual teaching only.
“I hear from school districts across the state that they are ready to go and teachers are ready to go,” Hutchinson said. “I’m disappointed that the union here in Little Rock [is] pushing teachers not to show up on the first day of class if they are assigned in-classroom instruction. I do not believe it’s helpful to students and it doesn’t recognize the steps that have been taken to protect teachers, staff and the students.
The governor noted that many private and parochial schools have already begun classes.
The public school stalemate has pushed parents to social media to question how they should proceed next week.
Asked what he and his staff are telling parents and whether the district is able to quantify how many teachers will refuse their in-person teaching assignments, Superintendent Mike Poore (who is expected to meet with media later in the week) said it was too soon to respond.
“We are working through all options and impacts,” he said in a text. “It would be premature to address these questions now.”
Poore was working in isolation Monday after experiencing symptoms late last week that included body aches and a scratchy throat. A test for the covid-19 was negative, but the superintendent will continue to self-quarantine until formally released by his doctor. He remains involved in the day to day operations of the district, spokeswoman Pamela Smith said Monday evening.
Earlier Monday, members of Poore’s staff converged at a district warehouse to showcase the personal protection equipment — including masks and sanitizing supplies — that are being distributed to the district’s approximately 40 campuses.
Kelsey Bailey, the district’s chief financial officer, said about $5.5 million in personal protection equipment and computer devices have been purchased for the school year and are in various stages of receipt and delivery to the schools. The Chromebook computers for some students, for example, will be delivered in coming weeks.
State officials are requiring that most school districts in the state be open five days a week to provide instruction and services to students, but the districts can offer, in addition to on-site teaching, full-time virtual instruction or a mix of on-site and virtual instruction.
The state-controlled Little Rock district of approximately 23,000 students and 1,800 faculty members has planned for a traditional five-day school week and a full-time virtual academic program for families who don’t feel comfortable with in-school instruction.
Poore has also noted that almost half of district students have signed up for virtual instruction, leaving school campuses under capacity and more easily able to physically distance students and staff in classrooms and other school spaces.
Little Rock and all other districts are expected to be ready to pivot to full-time virtual instruction if a covid-19 outbreak occurs in their communities and on their campuses, state officials have said.
“If there is an outbreak, we have the capacity and we’ve invested in that to do the testing and contact tracing,” Hutchinson said Monday. “In K-12, absolutely that is part of our plan. We want to start with in-classroom instruction, but if there is a need to shift to online instruction, that can be done. That is our blended learning environment that we have created.
“You measure the risk and determine whether it is a low, moderate or high risk and make a decision in conjunction with the Department of Health as to what the response is,” he said. “If it is a serious breakout, it can be shifted to online instruction.”
In response to questions, the governor said he has not been notified that there has been any higher than usual rates of school employee resignations and retirements this year. Some turnover is normal, he said, and some of that is because of employee health concerns. He said accommodations for a teacher’s health concerns is a “first solution.”
“Am I concerned about the first day of class? We are ready to go,” the governor said. “It is important for our students. Let’s have a good first day of school.”
In the Little Rock district, executive director of human resources Robert Robinson said the number of newly hired employees is not significantly different than in previous years.
Between July 1-Aug. 7, there were 34 certified employees and 19 classified employees who left district employment, according to district officials.
Gordon had announced Friday on a Facebook Live video the education association’s vote against in-person teaching until the covid-19 cases decline significantly.
“We refuse to enter unsafe buildings that put our students and ourselves at risk of contracting covid-19,” Gordon said in a news release immediately after announcing the membership’s decision. “It is unethical and immoral to try to force us to do so,” she said.
Gordon in her statement also urged teachers in other districts across the state to take similar stance. The union position was announced within the same week that Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, had called for all instruction to be done virtually in the early days of the school year because of the threat of covid 19 spread.
Hutchinson responded Friday night to the association, saying: “They can say their protest is not a strike but it obviously is a strike.
“Paychecks should follow teaching as needed in the district.”
Johnny Key, the state education secretary who serves in place of a school board for the Little Rock district, said some students will be successful using online learning, but that is not the case for all.
“It is unconscionable for the union to deny the benefits of in-person instruction to students who haven’t been in school since last March,” Key said. “Whether it is called a strike, a work action, or any other term, the result is the same — students will be negatively impacted.”
The Little Rock Education Association for decades was recognized by the district as the contract bargaining agent for most teachers and support staff workers in the capital city district. However, the Arkansas Board of Education this past December directed Education Secretary Key to end that recognition of the union and direct that the district establish personnel policy committees — one for certified teachers and one for support staff — to provide advice on employee-related matters.
The certified committee has about 50 members, elected by their school colleagues. The union continues to exist.
In her comments Friday, Gordon — a library/media specialist in the district, said repeatedly that the schools aren’t safe, and they can’t be made safe because of the ventilation systems in the schools.
She also said she saw inadequate personal protection equipment in the schools and adults in schools who were not properly wearing masks. If adults don’t follow the guidance, what will the students do, she said.
Gordon said the teachers “stand in solidarity” with other staff members — such as bus drivers and paraprofessionals — and “demand their jobs be maintained and that they be assigned tasks that provide services to families of greatest need.”