Tuesday was not only a snow day for students and teachers in many Arkansas school districts but also their first work-from-home day.
Students and teachers in 166 districts and charter schools with state-approved alternative instruction plans had schoolwork to do to avoid being declared "absent" -- even though their campuses were closed for the day because of the frozen precipitation that swept large swaths of the central, south and east portions of state overnight.
Act 862, passed by lawmakers last year, authorizes public school districts and public open-enrollment charter schools to develop "Alternative Methods of Instruction" plans for use on days when school is canceled because of emergency or exceptional circumstances. The 166 participants in the program came from a field of the approximately 250 school districts and charter schools in the state.
The law allows up to 10 days of alternative instruction per year, but the Arkansas Department of Education capped the permissible days this school year at five.
The statute is modeled after an initiative in Kentucky. It is intended to minimize the number of missed school days that have to be made up at the end of the school year, potentially causing a required 178-day school year to go beyond Memorial Day holiday in late May and into the month of June.
Makeup school days in June can conflict with summer school, summer camps, summer jobs and family vacations. The makeup days also occur after the students have taken the annual state-mandated ACT Aspire exams, which effectively reduces the instructional importance of the end-of-year makeup days.
"Due to inclement weather, LRSD schools and offices will be closed today," a post on the Little Rock School District website stated Tuesday. "Parents should be advised that today will be an AMI (Alternate Methods of Instruction) day for students. Please visit LRSD.org for information about completing assignments when schools are closed."
All five days of allowed alternative instruction were sent to students' homes.
The Pulaski County Special School District website had a similar message: "Please be careful and stay warm. Students and teachers may access the inclement weather assignments online."
Every participating district's alternative instruction plan is different, but, in general, students and faculty members who don't do their assigned tasks -- which for teachers includes monitoring students' online work and answering phone calls and email from students and the staff -- are counted as absent for the day.
Little Rock, like many districts, will evaluate how well it works.
"You are going to have some bumps and kinks," Marvin Burton, deputy superintendent of the Little Rock School District, said Tuesday about the first alternative instruction day.
Burton said the district's plan was developed collaboratively with principals and teacher representatives. Information about it was distributed to parents before and after the winter break that includes the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
"It's new, but I think it's a more productive means of real instruction versus waiting until the end of the year when all the assessments are over," he added. "We highly encouraged secondary school principals to have their teachers focus on assignments that kids may be expected to know and do on the ACT Aspire -- so the assignments are to be beneficial and not just busy work or not based on education standards."
Amelia Gordon, 10, a fifth-grader at Little Rock's Jefferson Elementary School, did some of her lessons for Tuesday on Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. holiday so she could spend maximum time playing in the snow, said her mother, Teresa Gordon, the president of the Little Rock Education Association union of teachers and support staff members.
Amelia's assignments Tuesday were both online and in paper form. They included a computer lab assignment as well as a math lesson on decimals, a passage to read about plants, with questions to answer, plus a passage to read about the three branches of government, with questions to answer. There is also a spelling lesson.
"I think it's OK," Amelia said Tuesday about doing schoolwork on a snow day.
"It's going pretty smoothly," Gordon said about the overall initiative, although she said there had been some earlier misinformation among district employees about docking pay if a certain online program was not used.
"We got that addressed," she said.
Ivy Chan, the mother of three sons in the Little Rock district, one each in kindergarten, first and third grades, said the five days of schoolwork sent home for her children was substantial and in some cases not clear about what is to be done and on what day.
"I'm barely surviving it," said Chan, who doesn't work full-time outside the home. "I think it is a really good idea, but here is the doozy: I only have instructions on what pages to do for one of my kids. I'm having to guess and figure out what they need to do."
Chan, who said she was able to reach one teacher by midday, went through the list of assignments for her oldest child. That included writing a paragraph, doing a word search, reading a short story, answering multiplication questions, and forming past and future verb tenses. Each of her three children was also to spend 20 minutes reading -- with questions to be answered.
"We've been doing this since 7 a.m.," Chan said at 12:45 p.m. "They want to go outside, but they have to get these packets done. They have to take them back to school, or they get counted absent."
In the neighboring Pulaski County Special district, standard lessons for all students in particular grades and subjects have been placed on the district's website: pcssd.org.
As a result, students in the American history course of Sylvan Hills High School teacher Greg Frantal and in American history courses in the district's other three high schools were all assigned Tuesday to read President Ronald Reagan's 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate between what was then East and West Berlin.
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" was the rallying cry in the speech.
The speech is followed with multiple-choice questions for students regarding the content of the speech and a couple of broader discussion questions to which the students must respond for grading.
"[Monday] afternoon our principal sent an email to all the students telling them to access the assignments if we didn't have school on [Tuesday]," Frantal said. "He sent us teachers the same kind of email telling us about the program and for us to access the district website to get the assignments.
"I was able to copy the assignment into Google Classroom," Frantal continued. "Right now I've been grading the assignments and students have been texting me, asking me for advice if they are having problems. Basically, we have been having school while we are at home."
The students were also to complete assignments for their other courses, as well, be it algebra, biology, English or elective courses.
Most of the student work is done online in a district where every student is provided a computing device, but if a student doesn't have access to the Internet for whatever reason, the assignment can be sent by email or a phone text message and the student can do the response on paper.
"This is our first time. I'm flexible," Frantal said. "What's nice about it is that we don't have to extend our school year much longer. Coming back to school after Memorial Day for one day sometimes is a pain. I like it as long as we get a majority of students. I know we'll have a few students who buck it, and they will suffer the consequences. If they choose not to do it, they will get a zero."
The Bryant School District's alternative instruction plan was approved late last year by the state Department of Education. It differs from some of the others.
The district won't direct students and the faculty to do the schoolwork at their homes unless and until schools must be closed for more than five days for inclement weather or other reasons, Superintendent Karen Walters said.
"Today is not an AMI day; it is just a snow day and it will be added to the end of the school year," Walters said about Tuesday.
The decision to hold off for five days was the result of the district's inability to start this 2017-18 school year last August with the plan in place and information about it properly conveyed to employee groups and included in the student handbooks, Walters said.
A Section on 01/17/2018
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