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Monday, September 01, 2014, 4:48 p.m.
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You’re excused

School districts granted waiver for missed days

By Tammy Keith

This article was published May 15, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

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Mayflower High School teacher Cindy Webb opens boxes of crackers in the middle-school gym on April 28, the day after a deadly tornado hit Faulkner County. Teachers, students and staff worked hard sorting donations and cleaning up the community, Mayflower School District Superintendent John Gray said. The state Board of Education has granted waivers to the Mayflower and Vilonia school districts for the five days they missed school because of the tornado.

Mayflower and Vilonia school district superintendents said they are relieved that the state Board of Education granted waivers for school days missed because of the cities’ deadly April 27 tornado.

The state board, at a hearing last week in Little Rock, granted five-day waivers for each district, matching the number of days each district’s schools were closed following the tornado.

Mayflower Superintendent John Gray and Vilonia Superintendent Frank Mitchell attended the hearing and presented letters making their cases for the waivers.

“The board was very sympathetic and understanding,” Gray said, “and you could see they genuinely cared, and they were trying to help.”

The last day of classes in Mayflower will be May 30.

The state requires school districts to have at least 178 instruction days.

Gray said his argument to the state board to grant the waiver included three main reasons, but “really, the main, main reason, it’s hard to put in words.”

“This community worked very hard that week …; it was a high-stress time,” Gray said. “Teachers, students — they went above and beyond supporting our community with the staging area.”

The Mayflower Middle School gymnasium was transformed into a staging area for donations of food, clothing and other items. Donations have since been distributed or given to the city, Gray said.

“With all the stress they went through, they just didn’t need extra days. They needed to get out and help rebuild our community,” he said.

Mitchell said he is pleased the Vilonia district received the five-day waiver, too, and felt it was justified.

“I really thought we’d get two (days). We did have some good reasons, I think, because of the kids and all that were displaced and the teachers who were displaced. It would have been really hard for them to have that added time on there. They’ve got to get their lives back. … We still have kids living in trailers and probably tents.”

In his letter, Gray cited the loss of electricity to the Mayflower schools and in the district from April 27 to May 2; loss of water to the schools and district; a boil order and “unclear bus/transportation routes to date.”

He said 68 Mayflower students were displaced, and at least three staff members’ homes were affected.

Gray said adding five days to the school year would interrupt the rebuilding process for students and their families. extend the “emotional and physical toll on staff and students,” and interrupt previously scheduled professional development for June 2-4.

“Our students and staff extended their learning and service to the community by volunteering numerous hours providing and delivering meals, accepting and sorting donations, and clearing and packing affected areas,” Gray wrote in the letter. “During the first 48 hours, staff was on hand to man the shelter and donation center. In the days following, hundreds of staff and student volunteers worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day and longer in many cases. Life lessons of servitude and compassion that cannot be taught in the traditional classroom were learned through this experience.”

Gray said his plan includes allowing the waiver to extend to his teachers.

“I’d like to give my waiver to all my staff, unless we’re told to do differently,” Gray said.

Mitchell said 12 Vilonia staff members lost their homes, and 152 students were displaced. He called it the “biggest disruption” he’s seen in the district in his 28-year tenure.

After a tornado hit Vilonia in 2011, the state Board of Education waived the days missed, “but it was only for the students,” he said.

“Before, a lot of houses were fixable; it didn’t just totally destroy that many places. But this time, it just took everything,” Mitchell said. “Last time, it was repairing [that needed to be done], which may have taken three or four weeks, but this time, it’ll take them several months.”

Mitchell said teachers who worked at the school or in the community after the tornado will get credit for their work.

“It’ll be up to them to confirm they worked. If they didn’t, they’ll have to come in,” Mitchell said, adding that it will be on the “honor system.”

“A lot did come up here. Our whole campus was just covered in trash, so they came up here and worked, or worked in the community. We did have some people who just came in and worked their job. … If they didn’t do anything, they certainly have to honor their contract,” Mitchell said.

The last day of classes in Vilonia will be June 6, he said.

Twelve people were killed by the EF4 tornado in Faulkner County, including a newborn whose mother was injured in the tornado.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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