LITTLE ROCK — The president of the Arkansas Education Association told state lawmakers Monday that it is unsafe for schools to return to in-person learning on Aug. 25 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“While we agree in-person education is the best thing for students, moving kids and educators in and out of school based on isolation and quarantine protocols will be too risky and too disruptive to the teaching and learning environment,” AEA President Carol Fleming said.
Arkansas has not yet contained the virus enough to safely reopen its schools, Fleming told the legislators. She asked that the state reopen schools virtually on Aug. 25 instead of bringing children back into their school rooms.
Fleming’s remarks were made to the Education Caucus of the Arkansas General Assembly, according to a news release from the AEA.
Sen. Alan Clark of Lonsdale and Rep. Mark Lowery of Maumelle, both Republicans, called the meeting to hear from stakeholders on the topic, “COVID-19 School or Not?”
Fleming said Arkansas still has wide-spread community transmission of the disease, and the state’s positivity rate is too high to reconvene schools for in-person education.
“There is much about coronavirus and COVID-19 we do not know, but it is our responsibility to make our decisions based on what we do know,” she said. “Arkansas students and educators have less than two weeks to go before the state is set to reopen schools to in-person or on-site learning.
“Let’s work together to maximize the next two weeks to ensure that we keep students and educators safe, and prepare for a new way to deliver education and support until we can get this virus under control,” she added.
Fleming also shared a school re-opening matrix created by the AEA Return to Learn Committee, meant to guide any decisions about the upcoming school year.
The committee is made up of educators from across the state who have used their own expertise, along with guidance from health professionals to create the plan.
Fleming asked state lawmakers to join the AEA’s call for education officials to make a conscientious decision to keep children, educators and communities safe by beginning the 2020-21 school year with virtual only instruction.
Arkansas has not yet contained the virus enough to safely reopen our schools, Fleming said.
“When we look at the state reporting data about this virus, and listen to health experts and educators, it is clear, we are simply not ready to reopen schools to on-site, in-person instruction statewide.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson spoke to the AEA president’s request during his afternoon COVID-19 press conference.
“They asked for a virtual start for the first two weeks of school and then see where we go from there,” he said. “We’re having the opposite approach, which is let’s start school, in classroom instruction, let’s do everything we can to be successful, and if we have to adjust down the road in individual school districts, we’ll do that. And so, it’s a difference of approach.
“I think the approach that we’re taking as a state is good for the students. We’re trying to put in all the measures necessary to give teachers confidence. And I fully understand from the letters I get, the communications I have with the teachers, the concern that they have, but I know that the schools are doing everything they can to make it a safe environment and that’s the direction we need to continue to go,” Hutchinson said.
Newport Special School District Superintendent Brett Bunch said his district is prepared for the new school year, whether instruction is offered online or in person.
“Our responsibility has always been to do what’s best for our kids and this pandemic has taken it to the next level,” Brett Bunch said Monday in an email. “The good thing is, here in the Newport Special School District, from the teachers, to the board and to the community, it’s always about the kids.”
“Our district has taken multiple steps to ensure being able to blend a student’s education,” he added. “Our board and technology director, Joey McKnight, have invested over $1.8 million in network upgrades and live streaming into a classroom technology.
“We have invested over $100,000 in PPEs, disinfectants and additional cleaning measures. We are an APPLE one-to-one school district, and we have entered into a partnership with T-Mobile to better serve our students that may be challenged for service.”
The Newport schools’ capability to live stream students from their home into a classroom will open many possibilities, Bunch said.
“We have met with parents who want their kids to start virtually, and it appears to be about 10 percent of our students districtwide. These parents and students understand we are going to watch their progress every 4.5 weeks to ensure their success virtually, and if they are not, we will ask them to come in person.
“Some students thrive on virtual learning, and others find it much more challenging than being in front of a teacher. That tells me kids want to be back in the classroom and parents want them there as well,” Bunch said.