State officials said schools in Arkansas must first offer in-person interaction five days a week if they want to also provide additional options for parents who don’t want to send their children to school at all during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Johnny Key, the state’s education secretary, on Wednesday issued what he called “a clarification” regarding the state’s expectations for how schools should reopen across the state on Aug. 24.
The document (read it here) states that “it is expected that all school districts offer, at a minimum, relevant and engaging onsite learning opportunities each day of the 5-day school week.”
Fayetteville Public Schools announced on July 15 that it will reduce the number of days students will attend in-person classes for the 2020-21 school year.
Fayetteville plans to offer a choice between traditional in-person classes and virtual off-site learning, but the traditional schedule will only include two days of on-campus classes instead of five. The other three days will include online instruction at home for those students.
Key was asked Wednesday why the state has changed its stance, considering it’s been three weeks since the Fayetteville district publicly announced its plan.
“This is not a change in our stance at all,” said Key. “We have said since day one that our plan for the fall and this school year is to come back and have school on site.”
Key said news of other district’s plans caused the department to issue its notice on Wednesday.
“We have been made aware that some districts were making plans that were fewer than five days and we felt like that the clarification was needed today to make sure the districts understood that we do have a state responsibility,” said Key. “We just clarified what we believe has been our stance all along.”
Fayetteville’s announced plan is to divide students into two groups – some who may only attend class on Monday and Wednesday and others who can attend on Tuesday and Thursday. Fridays will be an all-virtual learning day across the district.
That plan, according to the document released Wednesday, is not allowed.
According to the Education Department, restricting access to in-person interaction during the week is not an approved use of the flexibility afforded to schools during a pandemic unless there is also an option for students to be on site.
The document released Wednesday states that a district may only offer alternatives to in-person classes if it also provides an opportunity for on-site student-teacher interaction all week.
For example, if a district wants to only provide four days of in-person classes, then it must at least be open on the fifth day for students to participate as needed or to access resources for instruction, interventions and therapy. Another option is for a district to provide three days of in-person classes as long as the fourth and fifth days are also open for students, if needed.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said working parents need schools to offer a five-day school week.
“How do you go to work if for two days a week your kids are at home learning virtually?” Hutchinson said. “You don’t leave them there at the house alone. They have to have some supervision.”
Hutchinson and Key would not say whether there would be any consequences for a district that doesn’t comply with Wednesday’s announcement.
“The consequence is really to the students,” Key said. “We are working to build the capacity for virtual learning, but we know that some students are going to do better with on-site, in-person instruction. We’re not saying you have to have the same type of traditional classroom experience, but you have to have relevant learning experiences for those students.”
When pressed on the issue, Key again would not say whether a district would face any penalties for not complying with the guidelines.
“That’s something we hope we don’t have to explore,” he said.
The number of known positive COVID-19 cases in Arkansas reached 46,293 on Wednesday, an increase of 912 since Tuesday. Of those, 158 are from correctional facilities with most coming from the Delta unit in Chicot County.
Washington County reported 42 new cases and Benton County reported 20.
Hospitalizations are down 10 to 516, and patients on a ventilator are up five to 106.
There were 18 new deaths, bringing the toll from COVID-19 in Arkansas to 508. There are currently 6,937 active cases across the state, and the number of patients who are classified as having recovered from the illness is 38,848.