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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson, center, gives an update on coronavirus in Arkansas on Thursday.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Thursday that public school systems in four Central Arkansas counties will be closed, starting today and reopening March 30 in the wake of six presumptive cases of coronavirus in the area.

All public schools -- traditional and charter -- will be closed in Pulaski, Saline, Grant and Jefferson counties "out of an abundance of caution," Hutchinson said at an early afternoon news conference in which he said the number of people who are thought to have the virus, also known as covid-19, had increased from one on Wednesday to six by Thursday.

The governor's closing of the schools -- in consultation with his secretaries of health and of education -- is unprecedented in modern memory. School district leaders typically decide independently of other districts or the state on the need for emergency closures.

The districts to be closed in Pulaski County, which has a total enrollment of about 48,000 students, are Little Rock, North Little Rock, Pulaski County Special and Jacksonville-North Pulaski.

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The closed districts in Saline County are Benton, Bryant, Bauxite and Harmony Grove. The Grant County districts are Sheridan and Poyen. The Jefferson County districts are Pine Bluff, Dollarway, White Hall and Watson Chapel.

The Arkansas School for the Deaf and the Arkansas School for the Blind, both in Little Rock, are included among the closed schools, as are charter schools and charter school systems. Some of those are eSTEM Public Charters Schools Inc., LISA Academy, Academics Plus Charter Schools Inc., Southeast Arkansas Preparatory Charter, Lighthouse Academies and Friendship Academies.

Today and in the first week of the school closures, students in most if not all of the affected districts will be expected to complete lessons and assignments at home -- online or on paper in consultation with their teachers -- much as they would if the schools had to be closed for inclement weather.

Arkansas law allows for the use of "Alternative Methods of Instruction" lessons to be used for up to 10 days in the event of bad weather, infectious disease outbreaks and utility breakdowns.

[DOCUMENT: Letter to LRSD community » arkansasonline.com/313letter/]

"We hope education will continue," Hutchinson said, adding that he believes many families in Central Arkansas have access to online resources. He said later that he expects the school districts to fulfill the state law that requires 178 days of instruction. School districts can apply for a waiver of some of those instruction days. The applications are subject to approval by the Arkansas Board of Education.

The second week of the planned school closures is the previously scheduled spring break vacation for all public schools in the state.

"I look at it geographically," Hutchinson said about the presumed six cases of coronavirus in one part of the state and Thursday's decision to close schools in one area.

He said the positive cases are in the four-county area, meaning that they, as well as their families, workplaces and schools are in that area.

State officials will spend the days in which students are not in school tracking the contacts of the people who are ill and testing those contacts for the virus, he said.

Arkansas Secretary of Health Nate Smith said some of the contacts are school-age children, making it necessary to recommend closing schools as a way to interrupt the cycle of transmission of the virus.

Hutchinson said he was aware of the repercussions that closing schools will have on families, including the impact on working parents and the loss of school meals for the children.

"We will be looking at how we can fill in the gaps," Hutchinson said, noting that innovative employers are finding ways to provide generous leave for their employees who are affected by the virus.

Later Thursday, Arkansas Secretary of Education Johnny Key said waivers are being sought from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be able to provide meals to students in ways similar to summer feeding programs. That can include "grab and go" meals that are picked up from central locations.

Key also said he thought that leaders in schools will be available to deal with any food service efforts, as well as handle financial and other administrative tasks.

Key said other school districts have been provided with information on how to contact state health and education officials 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the event they have cases of covid-19 in their communities.

In the Little Rock School District, which is the largest of the districts in the four counties, parents and others were notified of the school closures and the plans to use the alternative instruction system.

Little Rock Central High, for example, sent a note to parents about the alternate instruction: "In order to locate Alternative Methods of Instruction (AMI) assignments, your students must log in to It's Learning. This portal will log attendance each day," the message to parents stated. "The It's Learning app may also be downloaded."

All school-sponsored activities were canceled starting Thursday. The district's after-school child care program is closed.

All Little Rock district offices will be closed to the public, but staff members will be available by email and phone.

Late Thursday afternoon, Little Rock leaders announced that they are partnering with the school district and other agencies to provide meals to all students in Little Rock.

Today, any Little Rock area students -- regardless of where they are enrolled -- will be able to pick up a lunch between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at most Little Rock district schools. Beginning at 8:30 a.m. today, parents will be able to visit the following websites to find the nearest school providing meals: LittleRock.gov/covid19 or lrsd.org.

To prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus, students will not be allowed to eat the meals on-site.

Those in need of transportation will be able to travel on Rock Region Metro's city fixed routes, information about which can be found at rrmetro.org. Youths age 12-18 will be able to ride Rock Region Metro buses for free from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Children who are 11 and younger are required to travel with one guardian, and each will be able to ride for free during the same period.

Partner organizations working to support students include the Central Arkansas Library System, the Clinton Foundation and the Hunger Relief Alliance.

The group expects to have details about an extended feeding program by Monday.

North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith said the decision to close schools presents a new set of problems for the city since community centers might get overwhelmed by children who on most days would be at school.

"We are trying to figure out what our plan will be because I am not even sure if we are supposed to have community centers open," Smith said in an early Thursday afternoon interview.

Later Thursday, city spokesman Jim Billings announced that all community centers, adult fitness centers, the William F. Laman Public Library System, and the Hays Senior Citizens Center will remain closed until at least March 30. Billings said after discussing the issue at length that no plan was formulated on what to do with the children.

However North Little Rock School District spokesman Dustin Barnes said the district is implementing its Alternative Method of Instruction plans while school is out. Students in grades six through 12 can find their lessons on Google Classroom, Summit Learning Platform, or APEX, Barnes said.

Barnes said there was no immediate information available about how children might be fed while they are at home.

"If there are changes, it will be communicated," he said.

The Jacksonville-North Pulaski County School District has canceled activities and sports until further notice, and has done the same for all staff and student travel.

Jacksonville high school and middle school students can access assignments through Google classroom. Elementary school pupils will complete packets that have been sent home previously in addition to new packets sent Thursday. Those packets are available online at www.jnpsd.org.

White Hall School District Superintendent Doug Dorris said Thursday that school officials there had received word from the state just before noon that they were to close the school until the end of the month.

Between spring break and a previously scheduled teacher training day, students in the district will miss five regular classroom days.

Dorris said those five days will be made up by using Alternative Method of Instruction in order to avoid having to make up days at the end of the year.

"Our teachers will be at their computers from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. on those days of instruction for any students who have questions," he said. "For our students who don't have computers at home, we're putting together packets to send home with them so that they won't miss any lessons while we're out."

Dorris said teachers and administrators have been running at full speed to prepare for the closing since getting word from the state.

"It's been wild around here since about 11:30," he said. "That's when we got the notification, and we've been trying to get word out to parents so they won't be caught off guard."

Key said the four-county closure of schools affects only public traditional and charter schools. State officials don't have the authority over private schools.

Key said, however, that his staff had alerted the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association on Thursday of its plans in regard to public schools.

Pulaski Academy and Central Arkansas Christian Schools Inc. had made the decision to close some days this week because of recent parent contact with people who are ill with the virus.

The principal at Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys announced that because of the state decision regarding public schools, it would close its physical campus until March 30, with all activities to be postponed, including Saturday detention hall.

"There is good news, however," Principal Steve Straessle wrote to parents. "Our faculty has worked hard over the last several weeks to prepare for this circumstance. They have already migrated the delivery of their content to the internet."

"Therefore, the learning will continue. Our message is full steam ahead," Straessle said about the use of alternative methods of instruction.

Elsewhere in the nation, similar school closures are being used to combat the exposure to the virus. In Ohio, schools statewide will be closed for at least three weeks starting Monday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Thursday,

Information for this article was provided by Stephen Simpson and Dale Ellis of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 03/13/2020

Print Headline: Schools close in heart of the state

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