Students and employees in the Little Rock School District will continue to have to wear masks against covid-19 until at least April 14, a divided School Board decided Thursday.
The board voted 6-3 to continue the mask mandate on all campuses until after the spring break week.
The board, at a long-running meeting, also:
• Voted 6-3 to authorize distribution of $50 gift cards as incentives to all students who have already or will become fully vaccinated against covid-19 by March 18, at a potential cost of about $500,000 to the district.
• Extended with a unanimous vote the district's covid-19 sick leave plan for employees -- which preserves an employee's regular sick leave time -- through at least April 14.
• Granted the superintendent the flexibility to amend the school district calendar to schedule make-up time for days in which campuses must be closed for covid-19 cases or inclement weather, beyond the 10 alternative method of instruction days that currently count as school days.
• Approved a motion authorizing the superintendent to seek a waiver from the state to increase the number of remote or virtual instruction days beyond the 10-day maximum now allowed by the state.
The board made the split decision on the mask mandate not only after a lengthy discussion among themselves but also after hearing from more than two dozen members of the public who were adamantly divided on the issue.
The district's administrative team, as well as its Personnel Policies Committees, supported the continued mandate at least until the spring break.
Board members Jeff Wood, Michael Mason and Leigh Ann Wilson voted against the proposal while Board President Greg Adams, Evelyn Callaway, Vicki Hatter, Ali Noland, Sandrekkia Morning and Norma Johnson voted for it.
Wood said he wanted the board to establish a number of active covid cases under which parents could visit their children's schools and that the wearing of masks would be optional.
"How many cases can we tolerate and return to something that resembles normal?" Wood asked, adding that people want masks to be required until it is safe to relax the requirement. He said he was asking for that safe number of cases to be identified now "so that we aren't stuck in a rut."
He noted that 0.7% of the 21,000 students have active covid cases this week.
Noland responded that her metric for deciding on relaxing the mask mandate will be the recommendation of medical organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that right now are calling for universal masking of those on school campuses.
The $50 financial incentive was equally controversial.
Noland said she was in support of the plan because parents and employees have urged her to do whatever she can to make the schools safe from the virus and because the incentive would actually provide the district with data on how many students are and are not vaccinated.
The plan would require families that wanted the vaccination incentive to register their child's covid-19 vaccinations in a confidential manner with their school nurse.
Wood objected to the ethics of paying families to get their children vaccinated. He also doubted that the incentive would be enough to entice families that are unwilling to have their children vaccinated to change their minds.
"Let's try it," Callaway urged.
Regarding the possibility of adjusting the school calendar to make up days in excess of the 10 virtual or remote learning days, Superintendent Mike Poore said the authorization giving him flexibility puts a tool in his belt.
The state allows a district to count up to 10 days of remote online instruction as alternative method of instruction days, which do not have to be made up. But schools that have to close for more than 10 days because of covid-19 cases or inclement weather have to make up the days later in the school year.
No Little Rock school has used up those remote-instruction alternative method of instruction days, but some are getting close. Southwest High, for example, has already used nine alternative method of instruction days.
Cloverdale Middle and J.A. Fair Kindergarten through Eighth Grade School are also closing in on the use of 10 days. Fair has transitioned to virtual education for today, for example.
Poore and his staff has raised the possibility of making school days longer as a way to make up for missed instruction time.
On Thursday, Poore said the district is also weighing the possibility of keeping a campus open despite high numbers of covid-19 cases. Most students would stay at home, but buses would run and teachers would report to schools. The teachers would teach online to students at homes. Students who can't stay at home would go to school for supervision, Poore said, adding that the plan would be used as a last resort.