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story.lead_photo.caption Secretary of Education Johnny Key (center) talks about adding an additional three weeks to school closings in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as Cam Patterson (left), chancellor of University of Arkansas for Medical Science, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson (right) look on during a press conference on Thursday, March 19, 2020, at the Arkansas Department of Health in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe) ( Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Thomas Metthe)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday extended closure of Arkansas' public school campuses through April 17 -- an additional three weeks beyond the end of next week's spring break -- as one part of a wide-ranging effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus infection.

The additional three weeks raises to five (including the March 23-27 spring break week) the number of weeks that there will be no in-school instruction for the state's more than 479,000 public school students. Hutchinson initially directed the closure of schools in just four Central Arkansas counties starting March 13 and then, as the number of cases of the coronavirus increased, closed all school systems effective Tuesday of this week.

The spread of the virus and the newly extended closure of the school buildings puts into question whether state and federally required student tests will be or even can be given this spring. Also up in the air are proms, high school graduation ceremonies, and other end-of-year events and traditions.

Hutchinson said the possible reopening of school buildings after April 17 will be reevaluated based on public health conditions at the time.

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

"Let me emphasize, students and parents, education will continue through [alternative methods of instruction]," the governor said at a midafternoon news conference. "It is important that we not erase this time period from educational instruction, but we continue it even though schools are closed for on-site instruction."

Just about all of the state's school districts and charter systems are relying this week on teachers and students to do school work at home -- using lessons that were either sent home in packets or can be found online.

Arkansas law authorizes school districts to develop alternative instruction lesson plans to be used for up to 10 days a year in the event campuses must be closed because of inclement weather, contagious diseases and utility outages. The alternative instruction plans 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.

With Thursday's announcement of three more weeks of school closures, the Arkansas Department of Education is waiving the 10-day cap set in law on alternative instruction days, increasing it by 15 to a total of 25 days for each district.

The agency's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education announced the increased number of days, citing authority granted by Hutchinson's amended emergency proclamation.

"I trust that educators and parents will understand this is not perfect, but we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key said after the news conference.

"While the suspension of on-site instruction is necessary to protect our students, the extension of [alternative instruction days] is a responsible way to continue education delivery. I have been encouraged and inspired this week by the creativity we have seen from teachers in posting engaging lessons and activities for their students across a variety of platforms," he said. "I appreciate the efforts of our educators, and I look for this dedication and creativity to continue as we work through this difficult time."

Leaders of the state agency said Thursday that they are working to assist districts that don't have all the resources they need to quickly produce lessons and assignments for their students.

Districts that have the capacity to plan for and deliver additional instruction allowed through their alternative methods of instruction (AMI) plans may continue to do so. For districts with more-limited capacity, the state agency has arranged for Arkansas PBS, the state's public television network, to develop lessons and resources for pupils in kindergarten through eighth grades.

Additionally the state agency is working with Virtual Arkansas and the Arkansas Public School Resource Center to develop options for students in ninth through 12th grades.

Virtual Arkansas is a state initiative that provides courses to students who may not otherwise be offered those courses. The Arkansas Public School Resource Center is a nonprofit organization that provides academic and financial support to charter and rural schools.

Details about the new resources will be sent to education leaders in the coming days, but districts should plan for the continuity of learning using a blended approach with digital, virtual or additional delivery of educational packets to students. Education services also must be provided to students who are in special-education programs.

The state Elementary and Secondary Education Division urged communities throughout the state to work with their school districts "to create safe learning zones where students can access the Internet and technology support or pick up educational packets while adhering to Arkansas Department of Health guidelines."

Asked whether the state will go through with giving the ACT Aspire exams in literacy, math and science to students in third through 10th grades, Key said, "We are looking at all the options."

The Aspire tests are typically given in mid April to early May. The exact timing is selected by each school system. They are used by the state and federal government as a way of holding schools and districts accountable for student learning. The test results are a key factor in determining a school's federal Every Student Succeeds Act numerical score as well as an A-F letter grade. Achievement on the tests this year was expected to be a factor in determining whether the Little Rock School District can be removed from the Level 5/intensive support category of the state's school accountability system.

Key said that U.S. Department of Education officials are reviewing the issue of the federally required annual tests in the states for this year and that Arkansas is "directly involved" in those talks.

"Nothing certain on that yet," Key said about the testing, "but we will have an answer within the next several days."

States such as Washington, Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania have already announced that end-of-year testing won't be done. Kansas has already said public schools will not reopen this school year.

NO SURPRISE

Arkansas superintendents and other school leaders were not surprised by Hutchinson's announcement of the extended closure of campuses in the wake of increasing numbers of people being diagnosed with covid-19.

In email and social media posts to parents in the past day or two, several had mentioned that they were exploring ways to provide educational opportunities to students should schools be closed beyond what had been the plan to reopen schools on March 30.

"It wasn't a shock to us," Karen Walters, superintendent of the Bryant School District, said Thursday. "We kind of felt like it was coming. And we're close to being prepared. Our team has been working really hard, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, but we have already started on a plan in case we weren't able to come back."

District staff members are surveying the families of Bryant students to determine who doesn't have a computer or other electronic device at home and who doesn't have internet access, Walters said. That is to help school system officials decide how to proceed with the delivery of lessons to students.

"When we come back from the week of spring break, we are not going to have our hot spots that week, and so we are looking at some short-term fixes -- things we can do for our secondary students.

Elementary school children will continue to pull lessons from paper packets, just as they have done this week, she said.

However, starting the week of April 6, all Bryant students will be accessing online lessons, which is information that was sent out to Bryant families Thursday on social media accounts, Walters said.

As for the annual high school prom and graduation, Walters said those issues will be decided after spring break when the district has more up-to-date public health information.

The Bryant district, like its counterparts throughout the state, is awaiting information on whether Aspire tests will be required. The district, also like its counterparts, is working with community partners to distribute school meals to students at designated sites and even home delivery to students who rely on school meals during the school year.

LITTLE ROCK SURVEY

Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore sent an update to parents Thursday to make them aware of the district's next steps.

"First and foremost, we plan to continue to support students and families through our grab-and-go food delivery and through our AMI instructional delivery," Poore wrote. "It is important to note and remind everyone that our feeding program will continue tomorrow [Friday], and when we return from spring break. Additionally, through our partnership with the City of Little Rock and the Clinton Foundation, meals will be available even during Spring Break."

He also said the district will continue to expect students and teachers to do schoolwork at their homes today and after the vacation week. To that end, district officials are in the midst of planning.

"As a part of this future planning, we need your assistance in completing a survey to assess the technology needs of students," he wrote, asking the families to complete a Google survey that is attached to the ParentLink message and is posted on the district's website and social media accounts.

Little Rock district staff members who need to collect items from their classrooms will be able to do so today. These plans are being established by individual site leaders. Staff members are not required to come in if they choose not to, and all should respect social distancing and personal contact norms, Poore said.

FORT SMITH CREATIVITY

Fort Smith School District leaders met early Thursday afternoon with community partners on plans to provide meals and other services for children in anticipation of the extended closure announced by Hutchinson.

Doug Brubaker, Fort Smith superintendent, said the availability of internet in the homes of students is probably the district's biggest challenge in terms of being able to continue operations.

He also said he was most gratified and excited about how the district's education has built on the original alternative instruction plans to make them more meaningful.

"And so, we're seeing, if you look out on Twitter, our teachers are leading videoconferences with students several times a day and consulting with them about how things are going, and we have nurses checking on students and educators," Brubaker said. "I mean, every employee type is involved in something, and ... because so many of our employees have Internet at home, we're able to perform a lot of functions remotely."

Terry Morawski, deputy superintendent for the Fort Smith district, said the district is looking at how it could use buses to extend its meal service for students into neighborhoods.

The district is also looking at what it is calling "a mobile help center." This would be a way for school district employees to go out, and provide services and answer questions.

"It's still a work in progress, but that's something we want to look at, and so we can still get out and serve our community even if they're in their homes and not able to join us at the school," Morawski said.

A Section on 03/20/2020

Print Headline: Governor extends closings to April 17 for state's schools

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