Hutchinson Delays Start of School Date
HOPE — Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced Thursday a 10-day delay of the target date for a return to school in Arkansas for the 2020-2021 academic year to allow local school districts more time to prepare for classes conducted in a COVID-19 environment.
“We are going to have school next year,” Gov. Hutchinson said at the outset of his daily COVID-19 briefing Thursday. “After consultation with (Arkansas Department of Education) Secretary (Johnny) Key and his team; and, after hearing from numerous educators across Arkansas, the start date will move forward to Aug. 24.”
Hope Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Bobby Hart said the HPS will take the new target date into account in its planning.
“We are anxious to start the year, and while we were hoping for August 13, we understand and appreciate the decision made by the Governor and the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education,” Dr. Hart said. “We will meet with our Re-Entry Team and board, and make a determination as to what specific date we will start.”
The briefing by Hutchinson, Key and Arkansas Department of Health Director Dr. Nathaniel Smith hinged upon four major points, including:
—The change in the date for start of classes to Aug. 24 is based upon current Arkansas law.
Key said state law requires the start of school in Arkansas between Aug. 6 and Aug. 23, but no later than Aug. 26. He said a 2018 general waiver of early start of classes which allowed for the Aug. 6 date will be rescinded.
Both Hutchinson and Key emphasized the priority to have students on campus with a flexibility in policy to pivot to online learning as a factor in the decision. They both expressed concerns some districts were not ready.
“It is vital that all districts be ready to welcome back students this fall,” Key said.
The Hope Public Schools has had an online learning component in place since the cessation of classes in mid-March, and has announced “Hope from Home Virtual Academy” as its online component for the 2020-2021 school year. Applications for the virtual academy are available at www.hpsdistrict.org online on the district and each campus websites.
—A three-tiered protocol for flexible response to a positive COVID-19 presence on campus will be used in consultation with the ADE and ADH.
The protocol divides responses into “limited, moderate, critical” categories that will be implemented based upon the level of “community spread” of COVID-19 in each case.
“We want to get feedback from the school districts, but I think it is a good response to a positive case in the school year to come,” Hutchinson said.
Key said determining factors for implementation of any given level of response will be based, in part, on student and staff absentee levels as determined by the ADH. Each district will be required to establish a single “point of contact” representative for ADH consultation/notification.
“We anticipate some districts will have to respond, but that won’t be until co-ordination with the Arkansas Department of Health,” he said.
The protocol will be used to determine when affected individuals may return to campus, or campuses may resume normal activity.
“I think that is something we will work through,” Hutchinson said.
—District policies regarding COVID-19 and return to school plans will be developed in consultation and coordination with the ADH and ADE; but, districts will be afforded the flexibility of most decision-making as it adopts and adapts to ADH guidance.
The HPS has developed a plan for return to school, “Hope United: Plan for Education 2020-2021” which is available on the district and each campus website.
Decisions such as the required use of face masks, building screenings, and “social distancing” will be left to local districts, Key said.
“The local boards and districts can make those determinations based on the need in that district,” Key said.
Smith said fundamental ADH guidance is strongly recommended.
The HPS currently follows ADH guidance in its districtwide plan.
—A full school year for teachers and students is expected this year.
Key said “contract days” for teachers will not be altered by the ADE, nor will “contact days” for students.
“We want to be certain we have a full school year,” he said.
Key said local school year calendars may need to be adjusted to accommodate the new start date; but, no truncation of the academic year is currently planned. And, he said, that includes the necessity to conclude the year in either late May or early June as is typically the case.
Key said no truncated fall semester is planned, as is the case with many colleges that will conclude their fall semester at the Thanksgiving holiday break.
And, Hutchinson offered hope for a football season in the fall; but, cautioned that ADH consultation should be involved.
The Arkansas Activities Association issued a statement Tuesday indicating the possibility of a full football season, but offering no definitive dates.
“The Arkansas Activities Association is preparing to resume activities and athletics this Fall in accordance with the regular AAA calendar,” the statement said in part. “These preparations are contingent upon compliance with all directives issued by the Governor’s Office and Department of Health.”