BENTONVILLE -- The Bentonville School District is allowing high school seniors to take fewer courses than usually required for graduation this year to help with social distancing in schools during the covid-19 pandemic, administrators say.
"Our reasoning is that it would help us thin out the crowd in the hallways and the classrooms," said Jennifer Morrow, Bentonville's secondary schools executive director. "That means I don't have seniors taking up seats in elective classes that they don't need for graduation. I don't have seniors in the hallway going to classes they don't need for graduation."
Opening plans for the state's public schools addressed social distancing during the pandemic and included efforts such as reconfiguring classrooms and moving desks at least 6 feet apart to help mitigate the spread of the covid-19 virus.
The state requires students to complete 22 credits to graduate, according to the Arkansas Department of Education website.
Administrators of the Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale districts require students to complete 24 credits to graduate.
"The only way you can get a credit is to pass a class," said Virginia Abernathy, Rogers assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. "When you look at the instructional day, there's enough time for students to earn 24 credits."
Students take seven classes each year of high school, meaning students can accumulate 28 credits over four years, Morrow said. Some students may not need to take a full course load to meet graduation requirements their senior year.
The decision to allow students to take only the classes needed to graduate is fully in the district's purview, said Kimberly Mundell, Arkansas Department of Education director of communications.
"As long as a student meets the minimum graduation requirements, they are allowed to do this," she said.
The pandemic hasn't affected the average size of the region's graduating classes, administrators said, with Bentonville having 1,266 seniors enrolled, Fayetteville at 575, Rogers with 1,156 and Springdale at 1,650.
Morrow said 326 seniors at Bentonville High School and 248 at West High School have opted to take the minimum number of courses required to graduate this year.
Allowing seniors to take the minimum course load to graduate has been a topic of discussion for Fayetteville as well, said Steven Weber, associate superintendent for teaching and learning.
"We haven't made a decision or taken a policy revision to the board at this time," Weber said, adding it still may be a possibility for students this year. "I'm sure we'll be revisiting it within the next month."
Rogers considered the option of seniors taking the minimum course load for graduation, Abernathy said, but felt it was important for students to complete their previously planned courses of study.
"We're just trying to offer them a traditional, quality school experience and prepare them for whatever they want to do after their high school education," she said.
Springdale also discussed offering seniors the option to take the minimum course load required for graduation, but determined the district's pandemic learning models would provide enough flexibility for all learners this year, said Shannon Tisher, secondary curriculum, instruction and innovation assistant superintendent.
The district is offering in-person, online and learning models that are a combination of the two this year, Tisher said.
Breanna Shipman, 17, of Bella Vista is a senior at Bentonville High School who said she's taking three classes through Bentonville's Ignite Professional Studies program and two classes online through Northwest Arkansas Community College this semester to complete her graduation requirements.
"That was just a game changer for me, and I knew that's what I wanted to do," Shipman said, noting she'll be able to graduate in December. "I've always been one to want to be ahead of the game."
Shipman could've qualified for early graduation in December during a typical school year as well, Morrow said.
"We do think that in a 'covid world,' where school isn't the same as usual, more students are willing to graduate early who may have stayed longer for the social, elective and other benefits," she said.
Shipman said she would have been in school from about 7:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. during a traditional year. She now starts at the same time, but is finished with school as early as 12:30 p.m.
She said she uses the extra time to help pick her brother up at Old High Middle School about 2:50 p.m. and is looking for work as a certified nursing assistant with the certification she earned through Ignite last year. She'd like to work in health sciences and is planning to attend the community college her first year following graduation and then transfer to the University of Arkansas the next year.
Morrow said some seniors may not opt to use their free time as constructively as Shipman, making parental approval and involvement in taking a lighter course load imperative for student success.
Not taking a full course load may have an impact on the efforts to create well-rounded experiences for students as well, Morrow said.
"There are some things they could be learning in our classrooms that they're not learning," she said.
Shipman said the district's efforts are noticeable when it comes to helping with social distancing, though.
"I can definitely tell a difference in the Ignite building," she said. "It's a weird school year, but it definitely still works out."
Morrow said it's unknown if the district will allow seniors to take the minimum course load for graduation following the pandemic.
"We always have to worry about opening the metaphorical can of worms," she said. "We know that there are many things that we've done since March that people are going to want us to do forever."
Some policies may become permanent, but it's too early to make long-term decisions that will affect student learning at this time, Morrow said.
"That's going to be another part of the puzzle, even as someday surely the door closes on the covid crisis," she said. "We're going to have to figure out what part of our covid creativity makes the cut for the future and what's not."