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story.lead_photo.caption Family and friends of Watson Chapel School Board member Ronnie Reynolds, who died May 30, gather for a short ceremony of remembrance during Monday’s School Board meeting. Reynolds' family was presented with a plaque to honor his years of service to the school district. Board member Alan Frazier, at right, reads the inscription on the plaque. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Dale Ellis) ( Dale Ellis)

Students in the Watson Chapel School District opting for virtual education over in-person classroom instruction continues to run at about 50 percent, or about 1,200 students, according to K-12 Curriculum Director Kristy Sanders, who serves as chairwoman of the Ready for Learning Committee.

"We have some new heroes to add to the list," Sanders said. "That is our teachers. They have done everything possible under the sun to accommodate our children. They are carrying the load of three different types of teaching, one is virtual, one is on-site and then when they get quarantined, they have to do their work from out of the classroom, so they are teaching three different types of students."

Walker said that virtual learning has been an adjustment for students, parents and teachers alike, but she noted that a number of students who initially opted for virtual learning have asked to come back to the classroom.

"From when we started the virtual orientation, we have had 148 students return to on-site instruction," she said. "They changed their minds and said virtual wasn't going to work for them. We've also had some to switch the other way but only a very few."

Walker told the board that testing of virtual students would be conducted on campus but only at specific times in order to enforce social distancing requirements.

"They're not missing out on anything and everything is going as smoothly as it can," she said.

Board member Sandra Boone asked if a cut-off date exists for students to switch from virtual learning to on site instruction.

"We would love to have one, but the state is saying we really can't because things happen," Walker said. "Parents get called back to work who weren't working so they have to be able to bring their kids back to school."

Boone then asked that board members and administrators use social media to send messages of encouragement to teachers to counteract some of the criticism she said teachers are receiving from parents.

"If you haven't been there you don't understand and this is an unusual circumstance," Boone said. "It's something that nobody bargained for...and every day I see some of the same names complaining that the school not doing this and my child is not, well, you should have sent your child back out here in the first place."

Walker said that although the district is working to keep class sizes small for social distancing purposes, any student who wishes to change to on-site instruction will have a place.

In other business, the board approved a Minority Teacher and Administrator Recruitment Plan that is required by state law because the district has a minority student population of more than 5% Black or other minority.

In the 2020-21 school year, the school district reported a student population of 2,163 students, of whom almost 85% or 1,838 are Black, 1.25%, and 11.1%, or 240 are white. The district also reported that it has enrolled 35 Hispanic or Latino students, 27 Asian students, 22 students of two or more races, and one student who is American Indian or Alaskan Native.

Of 147 teachers in the district, the report said 76, or 52% are minority group members, and of 14 administrators, 10, or 71% are minorities. Of 297 total staff members, 171, or 57% are minorities.

At the beginning of the meeting, board members invited family and friends of Ronnie Reynolds, a former board member who died May 30 at the age of 57, for a brief commemoration and presentation of a plaque honoring Reynolds' years of service on the School Board.

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