Governor Hutchinson stood firm today on his mandate that all public schools must be open every day beginning in two weeks, despite a rising tide of criticism.

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His Education Secretary Johnny Key created more confusion, however, with a statement on daily attendance.

Also, despite widespread reports of COVID-19 and other concerns, the governor said the state was sticking with a plan to resume high school football on schedule in late August.

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The governor announced a proposal to spend $20 million in federal money to cover up to two weeks of paid leave for school employees who have to quarantine. It will require legislative approval. He said this is a guess for the amount needed for the year to prevent employees from having to use their own leave time for quarantine. Education Secretary JKey said the state tried to be generous in the estimate of the amount that might be needed. He said that money could be used by employees (all staff, not just teachers) first before employees use their own leave. The Arkansas Education Association later called it a “step in the right direction.”

Key tried to answer another recent concern but seemed to sow more confusion. He said he wanted to clarify past statements that seemed to indicate all students had to be on campus every day. He said that wasn’t the expectation.

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He said, rather, the expectation was that schools will be open for students who “need instruction, therapy or intensive support only available on campus.” He said districts could have an alternative for some students, but “need to have the campus open for other students who need a five-day-a-week opportunity.”

If this is so, does that mean Fayetteville and others CAN have alternate-day schedules, as long as those who aren’t scheduled to be on campus on certain days, but might have special needs, are ALLOWED to go to school on non-class days?

Benton is another district that has announced it would open with alternate-day schedules and Key was asked about that. Key said he’d talked with the district. He said the state didn’t have a problem with alternative days scheduling at the opening of school. He said this amounts to an “easing” back to school, he said. But he said after two weeks, he expected all students to be on campus every day.

So what exactly did Key mean by saying earlier statements had been misinterpreted? I have a followup question pending with the Education Department.

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One school district swears it means alternate scheduling is OK, as long as a campus is available daily for certain students. Nope says an official from another district: No change. Students must be on campus every day. Whatever else he meant, he failed on clarifying the issue.

UPDATE: My initial response from Key:

Since the spring it has been our expectation that schools would open in the fall for onsite instruction.  As a key component of Ready for Learning, we have encouraged districts to provide virtual and blended options that would allow students to engage remotely.

Regarding daily attendance, it is not the expectation for every student to be on campus every day.  We do, however, expect campuses to be open daily to students who need to be there for instruction, intervention, therapies, or other education related services.  Districts are allowed to make alternative scheduling available to students/families for whom that model is appropriate.

The first week of school is always transitional and subject to adjustments.  Based on what Superintendent Skelton described, that is how we interpret Benton’s week one.  It is our understanding that for week two, Benton will have an alternating schedule but will also have the schools open for students who need to be onsite.

My followup: So can Fayetteville have alternate-day scheduling — two on and two off — as long as all students may go to campus for required services? I’ll update when I get one.

UPDATE: His answer.

Yes.

So maybe North Little Rock can change course again, if it chooses.

This IS a course change, whatever Key said today. Here’s the Fayetteville Flyer report on what happened in Fayetteville after the state very clearly said five days of in-school instruction was required and said previous plans weren’t workable.

Today, however, the Fayetteville district sent notices to parents of a change. Here’s the letter that went to parents of 7-12 graders, with a means to preserve alternate days.

In response to the revised directive issued by the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, Fayetteville Public Schools will adjust the Traditional/Blended/Hybrid Learning Option and will now provide five days of on-campus face-to-face instruction for the fall semester.

We will offer the following options for our secondary school students for the fall semester:

● The Traditional (Blended) Option: students will attend school five days onsite for face-to-face instruction each week.

● The Hybrid (Blended) 4×1 Option: students will attend school on campus four days per week and receive virtual instruction one day, on Friday, each week.

● The Hybrid (Blended) 2×3 Option: students will attend school on campus two days per week and receive virtual instruction for three days per week. New: Students with last names A-L will attend school for onsite instruction on Monday and Tuesday and students with last names M-Z will attend school for onsite instruction on Wednesday and Thursday.

● The Home Campus Virtual Option will still be available for families who prefer students to take all classes virtually, associated with their school of record, for the fall semester.

● Fayetteville Virtual Academy remains another long-term placement option for students to take all classes virtually. An application process is required for this option.

 

Some other districts apparently are working on similar plans. Others will be surprised to learn they can, such as North Little Rock, which had to change course this week. Or thought it did.

In other matters:

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Hutchinson responded to criticism from the Jonesboro superintendent, who said economic considerations were driving decisions and football was being given priority. He disputed that. He said decisions were “children focused” and based on health considerations.

Key, asked about complaints of non-responsiveness to questions to the Ready for School hotline, said the new hotline has had an overwhelming response and the state is working to get answers to all who call. It’s a learning process, the governor said.

Hutchinson opened today by reading a letter from a third-grader saying in-person school was important because both his parents worked and couldn’t stay home with the kids. Economy, in other words. And if a third-grader doesn’t know what’s best for his health, who does? He also called on Brian Duffie, superintendent of the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District, to say how excited and prepared they were for the opening of school. I wish he’d invited the Jonesboro super.

The daily coronavirus count

Arkansas added 1,011 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, for a total of 48,039. Hospitalizations rose 9 to 523. Deaths rose 6 to 521. Active cases: 7,158.

The top counties for new cases in the last 24 hours: Pulaski, 182 (100 from the Wrightsville prison); Jefferson, 61; Craighead, 53; Mississippi, 44; Sebastian, 43; Washington, 41; Independence, 40, and Benton, 32. Six more counties had an additional 20 cases.

Total tests performed in 24 hours: 6,224. The governor seemed to blame the big rise in cases on a good testing day. But we know from experience that all the findings of the tests aren’t yet included in the database.

None of the charts the governor runs through daily looked particularly encouraging.

Also today:

VOTING: The governor has signed an executive order, finally, officially declaring it’s legal to ask for an absentee ballot on account of coronavirus concerns. He noted there’d already been a huge increase in requests for absentee ballots. His order also will allow election commissions to open ballot return envelopes a week ahead of election day. They will contain a sealed enveloped with the actual ballot, which can’t be opened until election day, but the headstart on opening the outer envelopes will help election officials cope with the expected increase in mail voting.