ROGERS -- Northwest Arkansas school district superintendents generally were pleased with Gov. Asa Hutchinson's decision to push back the start of the school year nearly two weeks, despite the calendar adjustments it requires.
"It is something I welcome," said Fayetteville Superintendent John L Colbert. "It gives us additional time to plan and prepare for the upcoming year."
Hutchinson announced Thursday instead of starting Aug. 13, public schools will open the week of Aug. 24, but no later than Aug. 26.
Schools closed to in-person instruction in mid-March because of the covid-19 pandemic.
The announcement came as the number of covid-19 cases in the state is rising by the hundreds each day. The number of deaths in Arkansas related to the disease is up to 313 as of Friday, according to state officials.
Colbert prefers to begin the school year on the earliest possible date, Aug. 24. He plans to present his recommendation at a special board meeting Thursday, he said.
Fayetteville's calendar for the coming school year has classes ending May 27. Colbert said he'd like to avoid extending the school year into June. There are some staff in-service days and holidays that might be converted to school days, he said.
Marlin Berry, superintendent of Rogers schools, said the announcement surprised him a bit. It raises some questions, especially about when to bring teachers back to work, he said.
Teachers work on contracts set to a specific number of working days per year. Rogers teachers are scheduled to report to work Aug. 6, one week before school originally was set to begin. Their return date might have to change in accordance with their contracts.
"We have some options we need to talk about with our board and principals and teachers, because we value their input," Berry said.
The Rogers School Board's next meeting is July 21.
Must be flexible
Bentonville Superintendent Debbie Jones said the district asked its personnel policy committee to make a new calendar recommendation by Wednesday. The School Board will consider the matter July 21.
Delaying the start of school creates some inconvenience, but overall is a good move because it allows the district additional time to work with staff members on all the new measures that will be taken when the doors open in August, Jones said.
"This is a time we have to practice maximum flexibility and pivot as the information changes," she said. "We are accustomed to doing that now."
Jeremy Mangrum, superintendent of Elkins schools, also was surprised by the announcement. He said Friday he'd not had enough time to figure out whether the new plan presents many complications for the district. He was also busy preparing for Elkins High School's graduation, scheduled for this morning at the school's stadium.
"There are a lot of questions I think school leaders have right now, and I'm hopeful the state will be providing more information and guidance," Mangrum said. "I think we'll have to have that in order to finalize changes to the calendar."
Jon Laffoon, who began this month as superintendent of Farmington schools, said he had a hunch the start of school would be moved.
Farmington administrators finalized plans Friday for opening schools. That information will be distributed to the community next week, Laffoon said.
He said all school district employees are feeling extra stress because of the pandemic and the uncertainty it has created.
"But at the same time, if you have the right mindset, you can look at those challenges as opportunities," he said.
Jared Cleveland, superintendent of Springdale schools, said his district is fine with the new start date. A revised calendar for the year will be sent to faculty for input and presented to the School Board on Tuesday, he said.
Cleveland toured Tyson Foods' Berry Street plant on Friday to learn more about the company's health and safety measures in response to covid-19 and how those practices can inform the district's plan for the return of students to the classroom, according to a district news release.
The release quoted Cleveland saying he found Tyson is doing much more than he anticipated in regard to sanitation.
Virtual vs. traditional
School districts are trying to get an idea of how many students will be coming to school this fall, and how many want to stay at home and do school virtually.
Bentonville asked its parents to answer that question by Wednesday. Among the 18,166 students enrolled, 4,479, or 24.7%, indicated they prefer virtual school, according to Leslee Wright, director of communications. The district did not receive survey responses for 3,000 students.
After the start of the school year was postponed, Bentonville announced it would give families until July 22 to make their choice, which they'll be expected to commit to for at least the first semester.
Rogers asked families to make their choice by Monday. There were 1,664 students, or 10.7% of the district's 15,582 students, who chose the virtual option, according to Assistant Superintendent Charles Lee.
Rogers families, however, will be allowed to change their mind, even up to the start of the school year, Berry said.
The Fayetteville School District has put out a survey and wants families to pick between virtual and traditional school by July 19.
Siloam Springs asked parents to choose virtual or traditional school by Friday. A final count was not yet available, but as of Wednesday, 329 of the district's 4,243 K-12 students -- or 7.8% -- had elected virtual.
Families in the Springdale district may choose not only full virtual or full traditional education delivery models, but a blended arrangement where a student may go to school two or three days a week, Cleveland said.
Springdale hasn't set a deadline for families to choose their preferred option, said Communications Director Rick Schaeffer.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization of 67,000 pediatricians, has issued its recommendation “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” according to the organization’s website.
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette
Dave Perozek can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADaveP.