The decision came during a meeting in which the nine-member board also:
• Approved plans for virtual or digital learning academies for kindergarten through sixth grades and seventh through 12th grades in the coming school year.
• Learned that district administrators are developing a recommendation for a “pandemic payment” to all employees using federal covid-19 relief money.
Board members voted on the face masks in response to state leaders.
Education Secretary Johnny Key announced March 30 that school boards for Arkansas’ 262 districts and charter school systems must decide whether to continue, modify or discontinue a mask mandate in the schools, and to post that decision on district websites by April 15.
Key issued the directive to boards at the same news conference in which Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced he was lifting what had been the statewide mask mandate and shifting that mandate to guidance that masks be worn in public and other settings.
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Members of the public, both in favor and opposed to the face mask requirement in the schools, addressed the Little Rock School Board prior to the 9-0 vote.
Parent Rebecca Olsen told the board that “it is time to lift the mask mandate” as the masks make communication among pupils and teachers difficult, hinder social aspects of schools and constitute a health hazard as mask wearers repeatedly touch their faces to adjust masks. Olsen also argued that students are at low risk of covid and that adults who are at higher risks have had opportunities to be vaccinated.
Community activist Anika Whitfield and teacher Megan Prettyman spoke in support of the continued wearing of masks.
Prettyman told the board that it would be premature to lift the requirement as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend mask wearing. She also said that some students who have only recently shifted from online to in-person instruction will return to online instruction.
In response to concerns about difficulties in teaching children phonics and other elements of reading, Elementary Education Executive Director Darian Smith said that clear masks and shields, as well as speaker projection systems, have been provided to schools for reading instruction and for teaching some special education students.
Board member Jeff Wood said he supported the continued requirement because the school year has gone relatively well and he doesn’t want to risk disrupting schools and the ACT Aspire standardized testing that is currently underway on the campuses.
Board member Greg Adams made the motion for the ongoing requirement.
“I want to acknowledge the concerns of the folks,” Adams said, adding that masks are “tiresome and annoying,” but the pandemic is ongoing and risks remain for students and their families. He also said that the quarantining requirements for individuals who are close contacts to covid cases are more relaxed if everyone continues to wear masks.
“Balancing all those things out, it’s the most responsible thing we can do,” Adams said about maintaining the requirement.
Earlier this week Hutchinson said he was pleased with the initial response of the state’s school systems to the issue of face coverings.
“Some of the the rural schools are lifting the mask mandate in the schools. Some of the urban schools with a denser population and greater number of students are keeping the mask mandate in place,” Hutchinson said at a Tuesday news conference. “To me that is the essence of community influence on the masks and how that should be handled. … I have been pleased with the response and the responsibility everyone has demonstrated since the statewide mandate was lifted.”
The plans for digital learning academies for next year were developed by district committees of educators and parents, and were first proposed to the board last month.
The board’s approval of the proposal clears the way for it to be submitted to the Arkansas Department of Education for review of any waivers of state rules and laws that are necessary to operate the program. The district can also begin efforts to enroll interested students and plan courses and staffing for the digital academies.
Superintendent Mike Poore and Deputy Superintendent Jeremy Owoh said the online academies will feature both synchronous, or live, instruction and asynchronous, or recorded, lessons that are primarily created and taught by district teachers who are assigned to the virtual programs.
In contrast to this school year, teachers will not be called on to teach both virtual and in-person classes, they said.
Students in the digital academies will have access to an array of courses, including Advance Placement courses and career education. They will receive counseling and other support services online. The digital students, however, will be linked to their brick-and-mortar attendance zone schools for participation in clubs and extracurricular activities and those are the schools to which they will be assigned if they struggle in the virtual programs. Scores from standardized tests that the students must take on school campuses will be included in the attendance zone school data, district officials said.
In response to questions, Poore said the digital program — including staffing — can be supported financially with federal covid-19 relief money that the district is scheduled to receive for spending over the next couple of years. The Little Rock district’s allocation of that federal funding approaches $90 million.
“We are losing students to virtual charter schools and to home schooling,” board member Ali Noland said in explaining her support for the plan. “We can now provide that service. People can have the option of supporting their local school district and receive that content virtually without having to go elsewhere.”
Noland called the plan good for teachers who won’t have to simultaneously teach virtually and in person, good for parents who want a virtual option, and good for the district financially.
Also at Thursday’s five-hour meeting, Poore said that district administrators are close to finalizing a plan for distributing “pandemic payments” to employees before the end of the year. The district can’t use the federal covid19 relief money for traditional pay raises or bonuses but can use it for purposes related to the impact the virus has had on schools and employees.
The board’s next regular business meeting is April 22.