NOT ON THE PICKET LINE THIS TIME: Teachers, with an assist from the flu, shut down the LRSD for two days. Brian Chilson

The Little Rock School District will be closed Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 10-11, according to a message to parents from Pamela Smith, communications director for the district. Smith cited the flu as the culprit. Last week, the district closed Martin Luther King Jr. and Rockefeller elementary schools because of the flu and released students early on Friday from Geyer Springs Early Childhood Center because too many staff members were sick to maintain state-required teacher-to-student ratios.

Smith said schools would close because the district had received “an inordinate” number of calls from teachers reporting that they were sick.

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“The number of calls that we received by 5 p.m. totaled more than 250 staff members out,” Smith said. “This nearly doubles the number of staff who called in on similar days during the previous week.”

Multiple sources have told me that the Little Rock Education Association had called for a sick-out Monday and Tuesday. The LREA is angry at the State Board of Education’s recent decisions, including directing Education Secretary Johnny Key to stop recognizing the LREA as the exclusive bargaining agent for LRSD staff and moving to reconstitute Hall High School. The teachers union believes that the reconstitution of Hall — all school employees will be laid off at the end of the year and forced to reapply — as well as the closure of McClellan and J.A. Fair high schools and the reconfiguration of Rockefeller Elementary School into a birth-to-pre-K, requires the district to undertake its reduction in force procedure. The changes next year will leave some 400 teachers without a guaranteed job at the end of the year. The reduction in force policy would require the LRSD to immediately institute a hiring freeze, post all available positions, develop lists of current employees based on a rubric score that takes into account seniority and other factors and then “offer/place” staff in those positions based on their rubric score.

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The LREA contends that the district isn’t following school policy and that not calling a RIF unfairly penalizes teachers at schools with the most need. It’s not hard to understand the LRSD’s motivation for trying to avoid a RIF. It would add an element of chaos into an already challenging school year when the district will be opening a new high school, dealing with school board elections and undoubtedly continued state meddling.

I can’t decide if the sick out is tactically brilliant or terribly ill-timed. The district isn’t acknowledging that anything other than actual sickness is at play. And undoubtedly, some among that 250 number are sick. Both my kids, who attend LRSD, had the flu last week. One of my son’s teachers was out last week with the flu. Nearly half of my kindergartener son’s class was absent on Friday. But the district surely knew about the sick-out and understands that it’s the primary culprit of the big numbers of teachers calling in. Is it a win for the LREA to flex in a way that only the district, but not the broader public, sees? The fight over the RIF is crucially important to teachers, but fairly arcane in terms of public understanding. A school shutdown widely attributed to teachers (I’m not sure the Arkansas Blog reaches enough LRSD parents to count) probably wouldn’t be very popular. Maybe this way, they get to make their point and not take as much heat from the public. I don’t know.

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I’ve asked Teresa Knapp Gordon, LREA president, for comment.

UPDATE: Here’s a statement from Gordon.

The short version: The flu is bad and is affecting teachers, to what degree, Gordon says she can’t say because of privacy laws. But she says there’s another sickness she can confirm that’s harming LRSD schools: state overreach into the district and the malign influence of the Walton family.

Here’s the note from Smith to parents:

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As you may be aware some schools in the Little Rock School District have experienced higher than normal absenteeism at the student and staff levels due to the flu season.  Because we are concerned about how the flu is impacting our community, we have been monitoring both student and staff absentee rates over the past several weeks.  On Friday, February 7, 2020, we had to release students early at Geyer Springs Early Childhood Center as a result of not having enough staff to meet required student-staff ratios.  Last week, we also closed two elementary schools for two days after reports of high percentages of students being sick.

Today, February 9th, we have received an inordinate amount of calls by staff reporting that they are sick.  The number of calls that we received by 5 p.m. totaled more than 250 staff members out.  This nearly doubles the number of staff who called in on similar days during the previous week.

Due to these high numbers, we will take what we believe to be the necessary steps to create the safest option for the health and well-being of both our students and staff and will close schools Monday and Tuesday, February 10-11, 2020.  We are so sorry to make this announcement at this late hour, but the staff absentee rate has ballooned this afternoon.

We will not be able to use Alternate Method of Instruction (AMI) days over the next two days of school being cancelled.  We will have to make up those missed days. AMI days may only be used for inclement weather, a power outage, or some other unscheduled event.  The decision of how we make up those days will be determined at a later time.  Possible make-up days could be accomplished using Saturdays, Spring Break or the end of the school year.

We hope that students, staff and parents are able to utilize these next two days to get rest and recover.  We will use our maintenance staff to provide additional cleaning at school sites.  Parents, please remember:

    If your child has a fever to take him or her to the doctor
    It’s not too late to get a flu shot
    Fluids, rest and proper nutrition are essential
    Encourage frequent hand-washing

We apologize for this inconvenience and look forward to our students and staff returning to school healthy and ready to finish the school year strong!
Thank you and have a good evening.