School start date pushed back; districts plan for safe re-entry in fall

Miranda Holman
Paris Express Editor

Many local school districts are working vigorously to come up with several plans to bring students back to school in the fall safely. In a recent press conference, Gov. Hutchinson announced the start of the 2020 school year would be pushed back for Arkansas schools from August 13 to August 24 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In an earlier press conference, Gov. Asa Hutchinson discussed a plan for re-entry in fall, Arkansas Ready for Learning, that aims to support local school districts moving from online classes to in-person classes in August. Delaying the school year's start will give school districts almost two more weeks to prepare for the fall semester.

Last week the Arkansas Secretary of Education, Johnny Key, made a presentation to the House and Senate Education Committee about the Arkansas Ready for Learning initiative. Ready for Learning is a planning and guidance document created to serve as a game plan for the district and school administrators as they begin to grapple with making decisions for the 2020-2021 school year.

According to Key's, the Ready for Learning initiative also includes a playbook designed to address gaps resulting from lost learning that may have occurred because of school closures due to COVID-19. A team of approximately 130 educators developed the playbook that will serve as a learning guide this fall.

"It's critically important to develop strategies that can be revised and adapted depending on the level of viral transmission in the school and throughout the community. It must be done in collaboration with public health authorities," Key said.

A spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Education said that Arkansas schools would implement blended learning systems that deliver curriculum, instruction and assessment through multiple methods. This system incorporates both on-site teacher interaction and off-site instruction, including new content, through streamed or uploaded lessons and activities if extended school closures become necessary.

Paris School District Superintendent, Dr. Wayne Fawcett said the district had formed a Reopen/Relearn Committee that will meet on consecutive Thursdays to discuss plans for the new school year plans.

Taylor Gattis, County Line Superintendent, said that the district would follow the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) guidelines and the Arkansas Ready for Learning report issued by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

"Our plan will be to provide as safe an experience as possible that includes a rich educational experience, with opportunities for social interaction and extracurricular activities while adhering to the guidelines provided by the ADH."

Gattis stated that regular bus routes and schedules would continue as they have in the past, but the district is encouraging families to transport their children as much as possible to decrease bus crowding.

"Students over the age of 10 will be required to wear a mask while on the bus and the parents should screen their child for fever, sore throat, coughing, or shortness of breath before placing them on the school bus each morning. Bus drivers are required to wear a mask as well."

Arkansas Secretary Key said the policy decisions regarding face masks would be left to individual districts. Gattis commented that he has thought about it a great deal about students being required to wear masks to school.

"That decision will probably be made by the school board with guidance and information compiled by the school administrative team. We have new information daily, and we do not want to rush into any decisions right now."

"At this point, we don't know what effect it will have. My opinion depends much on whether there is an increase or a decline in cases," said Fawcett.

The Arkansas Department of Education stated they would continue to update districts on policy changes and new information regarding the school year as it is received.