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story.lead_photo.caption Errin Stanger (left), deputy director, and Chris Jones, executive director and lead maker, talk Friday about the 3D printing options for personal protective equipment being made at the Arkansas Inno- vation Hub in Little Rock.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

The Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub will help the North Little Rock School District navigate hurdles posed by the covid-19 pandemic during the coming school year by providing education and training, as well extra programming for kids.

It’s among the tools the district will use to deal with the many restrictions related to the pandemic, which members of the North Little Rock School District’s Reopening School Task Force said last month will be a monumental task in the coming school year. School is to begin statewide the week of Aug. 24.

School district spokesman Dustin Barnes said officials have asked the Innovation Hub to provide professional development for teachers on virtual learning and on hosting a parent-student night with blended learning.

The hub also will “serve as a location for resources for parents,” Barnes said.

The task force voted July 7 to approve two academic options for the coming school year. The first is an online virtual academy, and parents are asked to commit to it for the semester.

The second option is on-site learning Monday through Friday that will incorporate blended learning within the classrooms.

About 2,200 students in the 8,000-student school district have signed up for the virtual academy, but interim Superintendent Keith McGee said that number might climb because the district hasn’t gotten responses from a majority of parents.

Barnes said the school district is hoping the partnership with the Innovation Hub will ensure student success this year.

Chris Jones, executive director at the Innovation Hub, said his organization is helping the school district educate teachers and parents on digital literacy, digital tools and manufacturing personal protective equipment.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced last month that Arkansas will spend $10 million in federal aid to buy Wi-Fi access devices for families with school-age children.

“It’s great that [Hutchinson] is providing these hot spots, but even with the devices there needs to be a basic understanding of how to use it,” Jones said.

“Even with content and the devices, there is a digital literacy problem, and I say that from my own personal experience. I have five degrees with most of them in the technical field, but when my kids were trying to access some of the tools, I was scratching my head.

“If I am scratching my head, then I know there are tons of people across the state scratching their heads as well.”

Jones said the Innovation Hub is creating a digital portal for parents that will teach them the basic skills, such as how to connect to Wi-Fi and how to navigate the internet.

“The ultimate goal is to help parents help their kids,” he said.

The Innovation Hub also is creating more advanced programs to allow educators to take their digital teaching to the next level.

Jones said the agency has been working with organizations such as the Central Arkansas Library System, the Museum of Discovery and the Little Rock Zoo to create virtual field trips, after-school programs and 3D graphic printing, among other programs.

“We will teach people how to easily access that content as well,” Jones said.

These tools and programs were partly created throughout the summer when the Innovation Hub had to live up to its name.

“We always had some level of virtual engagement, but not a high level,” Jones said. “When covid hit, we had to innovate and put our classrooms out virtually. Covid forced us to innovate and create new ways of access.”

Jones said his group was in frequent contact with school districts across the state during the summer to learn about their needs. He said they ranged from personal protective equipment and face guards to summer programs, but as fall approached the need for enhanced digital content grew.

“We started thinking about things differently,” he said. “For example, how about some of these schools have a virtual lab instead of a study hall?”

Jones said he hopes to learn from what the Innovation Hub has done over the past few months.

“The idea of all this is that Arkansans are directly supporting other Arkansans,” he said. “Whether that is PPE, virtual content, enhanced content, we are there not only for North Little Rock, but for the entire state.”

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