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story.lead_photo.caption Kids sit against the glass in the cafeteria between classes at North Little Rock High School on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Stephen Swofford) ( Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Stephen Swofford)

North Little Rock School District officials are exploring ways to give teachers a break during the week because the coronavirus pandemic workload is creating additional work for educators.

The North Little Rock Reopening School Task Force on Tuesday discussed creating a proposal for a virtual-only full or half-day on Fridays beginning Oct. 20 to give teachers and students time to catch up with work without the stress of new lessons.

Interim Superintendent Keith McGee told task force members the virtual learning day would be asynchronous classes, meaning online courses would be done without a set schedule.

"We don't need new content on Fridays. We don't need assessment tests on Fridays," he said. "This day is meant to free up teachers and help them get caught up. Students are overwhelmed as well. This day will help them get caught up. They could even work on some of the essential standards they missed in March."

Robert Birch, task force chairman and the city's development director, said the schools would remain open on Fridays and students would be allowed to enter the building, but it would be treated like a virtual day where students do work on their Chromebooks.

"It's really designed to give teachers the ability to recover and maybe get some grading done, because you have got teachers up until midnight just trying to do lesson plans," he said. "Teachers will still be at school, but it will be kind of a refresher day."

Alanna Taturm, a parent and task force member, said the virtual-day proposal is desperately needed.

"Teachers are overwhelmed and parents are overwhelmed," she said. "It would allow everyone to catch up. I have gotten emails from schools at midnight and 1 a.m. I hate to see our teachers having to work such strange hours."

McGee said he wants to gather feedback from schools across the district before the task force meets again next week to finalize a proposal. He said once the plan is finalized, he will submit it to the Arkansas Department of Education for approval.

School districts across Central Arkansas are trying different schedules to give teachers more lesson planning time and schools more time to sanitize facilities.

In the Pulaski County Special School District, for example, elementary schools dismiss students at 11:30 a.m. every Wednesday and all the middle schools and high schools dismiss students at 1 p.m.

The Little Rock School District last week held a one-day, all-student virtual instruction day, and district leaders anticipate doing that and more on a regular basis to give teachers more time for in-person and virtual lesson planning, professional training and the deep cleaning of campuses.

"We do hear you ... and we are trying to find more time for you to prepare for the huge task" of juggling online and in-person instruction at the same time, said Randy Rutherford, the Little Rock district's executive director for secondary education.

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key said Tuesday during Gov. Asa Hutchinson's weekly covid-19 news conference that changes in school operating plans are being explored.

"We continue to get feedback from teachers that the balance between virtual and on-site [instruction] needs to be looked at," he said. "We are working with the district to make those modifications within their [Ready for Learning] plans ... so as to relieve some of the stress that is on teachers."

The North Little Rock district's original plan proposed to the task force included a half-day on Fridays where it was in-person instruction in the morning and virtual instruction in the afternoon.

"The Wilson [Reading System] requires 45 minutes a day, five days a week," said LeAnn Alexander, the director of special services for the district and a task force member. "That is why we are looking at a half-day, especially for our elementary."

The suggestion drew mixed reactions from educators on the task force.

Faith Jones, a secondary teacher, said their building would need an entire day if the virtual concept is going to work.

"If we do half a day, then by the time we get the kids on the bus and wrapped everything up, then you have burned up a lot of that time," she said.

McGee said it might be a situation where secondary schools have a separate plan from elementary schools.

Maria Touchstone, the district's English as a Second Language/English for Speakers of Other Languages coordinator, said she wanted to make sure student accountability was considered in the plan and that the time on Fridays was used wisely.

Lauren Whitmore, an elementary teacher at the district, said she was concerned the proposal would actually create more work for educators.

"All of it sounds overwhelming," she said.

Autumn Thomas, a secondary teacher at the district, agreed.

"If we are required to make lessons for those days then it's another task for us," she said. "Additional assignments mean additional work. Accountability is a good point, but it also the same problem we have with all virtual learning.

"I don't see this asynchronous day as anything different than our current problems with virtual learning."

Adrienne Robinson, a professor at the University of Arkansas in Pine Bluff and a task force member, said the virtual day where no new content is created is important for students.

"It will give students more time," she said. "It will give them some flexibility to reach out to educators. I know a lot of virtual students haven't had a lot of opportunity to talk to teachers one on one like they are used to because work is constantly coming at them."

Tatum also said that having a virtual day for secondary and high school students will help them become more self-sufficient.

"They will need to be self-motivated and learn time management skills," she said. "A lot of work is virtual in today's world, and this day will teach them skills they will need later on. As a parent, I love this idea."


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