Little Rock School Board members on Thursday wrestled with how to complete the second half of the school year in the midst of an ongoing and currently surging covid-19 pandemic.
At issue were:
• Whether and how to change the district's current requirement that all employees and students wear masks in schools.
• How long the district can continue to provide paid leave for employees who have covid or must quarantine without subtracting the missed days from their regular sick leave.
• How to permit parents and other visitors to attend student-centered campus events such as class parties, performances and awards ceremonies.
• Award incentives -- such as $50 gift cards -- for students who become fully vaccinated against covid-19.
Board members made no decisions on the matters at the Thursday night agenda session but asked questions in anticipation of voting on at least some of the issues at the Jan. 27 business meeting.
The discussions occurred on a day in which the Arkansas Department of Health reported that there were 12,109 active covid cases in the state's public schools -- nearly double the 6,294 cases reported Monday. The state agency reported there were 420 active cases among students and employees in the Little Rock district on Thursday, up from 325 on Monday.
The discussions also came in a meeting in which about a half dozen public comments to the board were sharply critical of the district's mask-wearing requirements and its closing some or all schools to on-site instruction -- pivoting temporarily to remote teaching and learning for teachers and students.
Deputy Superintendent Keith McGee and Director of Health Services Jacqueline McCuen introduced a proposal to base the mask-wearing requirements on the numbers of covid cases in the district in the preceding week.
Students and their families would be notified every Friday whether masks would be required or optional in the coming week.
McGee said the color-coded plan was developed in response to a board member request for some options on the mask-wearing mandates.
Superintendent Mike Poore said the option has not been presented to the district's employee groups. Those personnel policies committees, he said, have voted in favor of retaining the mask-wearing requirements through the end of spring break vacation in March.
Board member Ali Noland asked whether state and federal health agencies are recommending that masks be worn at schools and what the justification would be for a lesser requirement.
She also voiced concerns about hinging a sliding requirement for mask wearing on covid case numbers that could be inaccurate because of the volume in which they are being reported.
McCuen responded that the minimum number of cases that would trigger mandatory masks -- a proposed 30 cases in the district -- could be accurately recorded with a large influx of case reports.
Greg Adams, the board's president, asked how the district might transition away from mask wearing and what the right time for that might be.
Board member Jeff Wood said he asked for masking options that would make sense when case numbers are low in the district as they were this past fall.
Wood also spoke in support of opening school buildings to parents and others for events involving their children.
"I haven't been in my kids' schools in two years," Wood said. "I don't have a problem with that when case numbers are high, but back in October and November that was hard for me."
He said it was difficult to see families and students in other districts or in charter and private schools be more flexible about letting families into buildings when the Little Rock district was locking down buildings "in times of no justification but just out of fear."
Board member Vicki Hatter said that excluding parents from the buildings will prevent parents from being engaged and feeling connected to their child's school.
But board member Evelyn Callaway said the pandemic, which has resulted in serious illness and deaths, makes it necessary to be strict about access.
Poore said visitor access will have to vary among the buildings because some schools have greater space limits than others.
"It has to be done in a smart way," Poore said.
In regard to continuing the district's policy of granting leave time for covid-related illnesses and quarantines, Noland and Callaway said they would prefer to continue the practice through the end of the school year. The district is using federal covid-19 relief money to offset the cost of the leave time.