JOHNNY KEY
Brian Chilson
JOHNNY KEY (file photo)

Education Secretary Johnny Key said today at Governor Hutchinson’s daily COVID-19 briefing that the new state requirement that local school districts offer on-site instruction every weekday wasn’t a policy change. “Really this is not a change in our stance at all,” he said. “… We have said since day one the plan for the fall was to come back and have school onsite.”

Governor Hutchinson, perhaps explaining the motivation of the move, said that he had heard complaints from working parents about the hybrid model. “It makes it very, very difficult for working parents,” Hutchinson said of a split schedule. “How do you go to work for two days if the kids are at home learning virtually?”

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Key said the education department had become aware of districts offering fewer than five days of on-site instruction, which led them to issue what he called a “clarification” today.

But districts offering hybrid schedules isn’t news to the state. The Fayetteville School District announced its plan to offer a split schedule with students on campus two days a week in early July. Hutchinson was asked about it July 16 and said the district “had gotten a little off track” of what he expected of schools. EStem Public Charter Schools in Little Rock, the largest charter school system in the state, also announced its plans to offer a split schedule in early July. School districts in Dumas, Forrest City and Helena/West Helena have announced similar plans.

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Sixty-three districts responded in a survey from the education department that they planned to offer a hybrid/split schedule, but a spot check of some of those districts indicate many also plan to offer daily instruction.

I’ve sought comment from several of the affected school districts, but none have been prepared to comment.

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Tracey-Ann Nelson, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, had this to say of the move:

No one knows the value and importance of in-person learning and the myriad of other services our public schools provide more than the public school educators. Unfortunately, our state is not ready to return to in person learning. Instead of using this time to plan on ways to reach the students who will need the most help in this disruptive situation, the state is now upending the plans local districts have spent months developing with educators, parents and community stakeholders

This “clarification” comes during a time when the overall positivity rate remains far above what health experts say is safe to reopen. Flexibility has been a necessary aspect of responding to the needs of students and school districts.  Local districts should be allowed to make decisions that put health and safety first as the impact of that decision goes well beyond the school building

UPDATE: The Fayetteville Public School District issued a statement saying it will issue a new survey to parents.

“After reviewing the initial Ready for Learning guidance from the state, our district team and Ready for Learning committee developed a hybrid plan that we felt best addressed the safety of our students and staff members while they are on campus,” said Superintendent Dr. John L Colbert. “However, with today’s new directive from Secretary of Education Johnny Key, we will adjust our plan accordingly, continuing to prioritize the safety of our students and staff members to the best of our ability.”