EDUCATION SECRETARY JOHNNY KEY (file photo) Brian Chilson

The State Board of Education has approved a series of waivers of state education law for 260 school districts in the state. The waivers, which will be in place from July 1 until June 30, 2021, cover laws that limit teachers’ noninstructional duty time, that allow teachers to have duty-free lunch and that reserve planning time.

Another is wonky, but very important to teachers: It gets rid of the requirement that midyear proposals to change policy in teachers’ contracts be submitted to districts’ personnel policy committees 10 days before a school board votes on the change. Personnel policy committees are made up teachers, administrators and support staff.

The Arkansas Department of Education’s summary of the waivers say they’re necessary “in order to respond to the COVID-19 emergency, to plan for re-entry to onsite instruction, and to have flexibility to implement blended learning systems.”

School districts will be required to post on their websites if and how they plan to take advantage of the waivers.

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Education Secretary Johnny Key and other department officials emphasized that the waivers were intended to apply only in narrow circumstances, largely related to virtual instruction. Department officials said, for instance, that it would be difficult for a school district to ensure that teachers who are working remotely have a duty-free lunch or a designated planning period.

Teachers are worried that these waivers will allow school districts to ignore their input into planning for the next school year, which because of the pandemic, will be unlike any previous year. They’re also concerned that the waivers will allow districts to force teachers to work longer hours for no additional compensation.

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Adrienne Woods, the newest State Board member and a lawyer from Bentonville, said she believed the intent of the waivers was good, but suggested that, in practicality, the effect was that districts would have carte blanche to apply them however they wanted. Courtney Salas-Ford, an attorney for the Department of Education, said Woods’ reading was “a little bit of an overgeneralization,” but admitted that the department couldn’t “prevent all bad actors.” Salas-Ford said in the case of districts taking improper advantage of the waivers, departmental review could refer those districts to the State Board, which could revoke the waivers for those specific districts.

Woods was the lone vote against the waivers. Board members Fitz Hill and Brett Williamson were absent. And, because this was a special called meeting, outgoing board chair Diane Zook got to preside over one more meeting.

Stacey McAdoo, the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year and a teacher at Little Rock Central High School, echoed the concerns of many teachers. She described the waivers as “dangerous and reckless.”

“It opens up so many opportunities to squash teacher buy-in, teacher participation, teacher voice,” she said.

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Board member Susan Chambers said the waivers felt very broad, but how they impact students and educators would depend entirely on how they’re implemented by individual districts. She said the State Board needed to do a better job at listening to educators and making sure they understood that if they have a problem they could come to the State Board. (That will likely be cool comfort for Little Rock School District educators.)

Board member Ouida Newton asked for the rationale behind the suspension of the 10-day notification requirement to personnel policy committees. Salas-Ford said that 10 days seemed like a short window of time, but wouldn’t work in the event of an emergency.

Board members asked Key if and when the department would be providing further health guidance. Key said the state had done a lot of that work with its Ready for Learning playbook. He said the department was adjusting the playbook as it got additional guidance from the Arkansas Department of Health. He said the health department would be assisting the education department in coming up with an “operational decision making tree” that would give districts guidance on questions such as…

What steps should districts take if someone in a school tests positive for COVID-19?

What’s the contact tracing procedure for schools?

Who should be notified? How should districts handle press inquiries?

Key said that guidance should be coming in the next few weeks.