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story.lead_photo.caption Israel Soto, 11, grabs a carton of milk for the grab-and-go lunch he picked up Wednesday at the Dee Brown Library in southwest Little Rock. The city is offering grab-and-go lunches for kids during the mandatory school closures. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Arkansas school districts that designed their alternative instruction lessons to incorporate technology are experiencing a few hiccups, a state education spokeswoman said Wednesday.

But many school systems anticipated issues and sent students home with packages of paper lessons.

"Districts have reported a lag time for connectivity not unlike other systems in the state," Kimberly Mundell of the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education said in response to questions about student access to the Alternative Methods of Instruction lessons during the state-ordered shutdown of schools.

All of the state's traditional and charter public schools, along with many private schools, are closed and will remain so at least through the end of spring break, March 29, to help stop or drastically slow the spread of the coronavirus or covid-19 pandemic.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Nationally, 39 states and Washington, D.C., have closed their schools, according to Education Week, a national publication focused on elementary and secondary education. Kansas has become the first state to order campuses closed through the end of the school year. When states that directed all schools closed are combined with district closures in other states, at least 91,000 public and private schools have either been, are or will be closed, affecting 41.7 million students, according to Education Week.

Arkansas has 238 school districts and 25 charter schools serving 479,430 public school students. Gov. Asa Hutchinson directed that all districts in four Central Arkansas counties -- Pulaski, Grant, Jefferson and Saline -- close as of Friday. He directed that all other districts in the state be closed as of Tuesday.

Arkansas law authorizes school systems to develop alternative instruction lesson plans to be used for up to 10 days a year in the event school campuses must be closed because of inclement weather, utility failures and contagious diseases. The plans are subject to approval by the state prior to their being enacted by a district. They enable students and teachers to do schoolwork at home as a way to avoid makeup days on school holidays or at the end of the year.

"Every district has a different [alternative-instruction] plan, and some do not implement technology as much as others," Mundell said. That is the case especially if there is an issue of accessibility to technology for the student, she added.

"Before districts can take an [alternative-instruction] day, the learning materials must be made available to students. We know that some districts are making additional packets available for pickup, buses are delivering packets, and/or they are available if the district is providing meals to students in a 'grab and go' setting."

Charles McNulty, superintendent of the 12,000-student Pulaski County Special School District, said Wednesday that the use of the alternative lesson plans "seems to be going fine," but he also said there have been some technology issues, including some nonworking Chromebooks and a lack of internet service.

"Overall [it's] doing well," McNulty said about the lessons at home. "Packets for kindergarten-through-second graders were issued last Thursday and packets for students who do not have internet were also sent home Thursday. Teachers are available" through email and other technology platforms, he also said.

In the much smaller Shirley School District near Greers Ferry Lake, all students are going the paper route but that could change if the school closures go into April, Superintendent Tyrene Gardner said."

"Our students are using [alternative-instruction] packets at this time. We surveyed our students and found that about 60% have internet access in their homes. Many of our students have cellphones with limited WiFi.

"At this time we plan on school resuming March 30," Gardner continued. "We are working on finding solutions for our students to be able to access the internet from their homes if the closure is extended," she said and praised the work of the Shirley staff.

TECH PROVIDERS

Several companies that are providers of internet service in Arkansas and across the nation have announced in recent days plans to provide low-cost and no-cost service and installation to new low-income eligible homes for 60 days.

They are also are taking other steps such as suspending caps on broadband use, making WiFi hot spots available, increasing internet speeds, allowing home service to continue despite inability to pay, waiving late fees, and assisting with the establishment of virtual classrooms. And still other services offered in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic are fast-tracking checks of customer eligibility for service and extended remote desktop support.

Some of the companies offering those kinds of services are AT&T Communications, Xfinity/Comcast, Cox and Charter Communications/Spectrum.

PULASKI COUNTY PRIVATE SCHOOLS

Also Wednesday, leaders of Pulaski County's largest private schools sent a joint letter to their school families alerting them to the conditions under which their schools might be closed beyond spring break.

"With the Governor's decision to close all public schools in Arkansas until March 30 (at this point), our attention has turned towards contingency planning should virtual/AMI learning environments need to continue once we return from Spring Break," the letter says.

"At this point, we would keep campuses closed if:

• The governor or other state authorities announce the extension of the AMI days for public schools past March 30;

• The rates of infection in the Little Rock and surrounding communities increase significantly, making social distancing even more critical;

• A particular school would likely remain closed if a student, staff, or faculty member tests positive for COVID-19, barring other instruction from government agencies."

Signing the letter were Carter Lambert of Central Arkansas Christian, Pattie Davis of Mount St. Mary Academy, Gary Arnold of Little Rock Christian Academy; Shana Nolen of The Anthony School, David Perkinson of Episcopal Collegiate and Matt Walsh of Pulaski Academy, Rex Horne of Baptist Prep and Steve Straessle of Catholic High School.

Metro on 03/19/2020

Print Headline: At-home lessons bumpy for some

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