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Union says virtual only for LRSD

Members of the Little Rock Education Association will teach students in the capital city school system only virtually, not in person, when school starts Aug. 24 and will continue doing so until the cases of covid-19 in the county drop significantly, the association president said Friday night.

“We refuse to enter unsafe buildings that put our students and ourselves at risk of contracting covid-19,” Teresa Knapp Gordon, leader of the union of teachers and support staff personnel in the Little Rock district, said in a news release immediately after announcing the membership’s decision in a Facebook Live broadcast.

“It is unethical and immoral to try to force us to do so,” said Gordon, who criticized Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Education Secretary Johnny Key for requiring schools in Little Rock and throughout the state to open while the number of covid-19 cases increases by hundreds a day.

State officials are requiring that most school districts 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 and partial virtual instruction.

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All 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.

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.

Gordon, a media specialist at one of the Little Rock district’s elementary schools, said the teacher association members are not going on strike, and they will be at work as planned in the coming week.

But they will teach pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade students only virtually, she said. And that virtual-only instruction will continue until Pulaski County’s covid-19 positivity rate, which is now 15.53%, remains below 5% for 14 consecutive days, she said.

State leaders disagreed Friday night with the position taken by the teachers union, which held the actual vote on the matter Monday.

The Little Rock union plan to do only virtual teaching comes in the same week that the parent organization Arkansas Education Association called for all school districts to start the school year with virtual or online teaching only.

“The union is not being helpful to the students in the Little Rock School District, who are ready to learn,” Hutchinson said.

“They can say their protest is not a strike but it obviously is a strike, he said in a text response. “Paychecks should follow teaching as needed in the district,” he also said.

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 in an email message. “Whether it is called a strike, a work action, or any other term, the result is the same — students will be negatively impacted.”

Key acknowledged that there are very challenging circumstances to the new school year, but said teachers and school personnel are preparing to meet the needs of students who are on campus and who are online.

“These preparations include acquiring personal protection equipment, establishing policies for face coverings, adjusting schedules and practices to accommodate social distancing, and implementing additional cleaning procedures to mitigate the risk of spread,” Key said.

Mike Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock district, called the stance by the teachers organization “premature,” saying the district is “doing everything we can to make sure that the in-person environment is very safe.”

He said the district initially had a supply of masks and sanitizing supplies for teachers returning to work this week, and now a lot more personal protection equipment has and is arriving from the state and from vendors. Those supplies are now being delivered to schools, he said.

Already in the works, he said are plans for the coming week to showcase in videos for the public all of the work that principals and others have done to prepare for both on-site and virtual instruction.

Poore also noted that about 50% of students are opting for virtual instruction and half for traditional school, which will aid the district in promoting physical distancing among students and adults who are on campus.

“It seems a bit premature,” he said of the union vote against in-person teaching. “With teachers coming back to work, … they are seeing the efforts being made in the buildings and the materials. Everything we said we would do, we are doing. I really do believe that we are going to create a safe environment for students and staff, and we are going to continue to work as hard as we can to make that happen.”

Gordon’s hourlong broadcast on Facebook Live attracted about 400 viewers.

She said repeatedly that returning to face-to-face classroom instruction endangers the health and the lives of students and adults.

“The schools are not safe, and they can’t be made safe,” she said, “because of the ventilation systems in the schools. The idea that they are safe is malarkey. I want parents to hear me, too. Every day we are in those buildings we are at risk. Every day your children are in those buildings they will be at risk. We must stand up for our children and for ourselves.”

Gordon said she was aware that she could lose her job in the district for her stand but that she couldn’t bear the thought of not taking the position, and then having students and employees become ill and die.

“My job is to keep kids safe. If the governor won’t protect kids, it falls on us,” she said. “We have no choice. We can’t in good conscience allow children back in school.”

Over the past week she 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 didn’t rule out the possibility that teachers might teach virtually from classrooms empty of students, because that is where their teaching materials are.

She also 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.

“People think that going back to school will make things normal, but that won’t be the case,” she said.

Information for this article was contributed by Bill Bowden of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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