The Arkansas Board of Education on Monday approved a set of waivers of state laws and rules intended to give school systems the flexibility to provide a blend of online and face-to-face instruction to students in the upcoming 2020-21 school year.
The waivers of the rules and laws relax some requirements regarding daily and weekly hours of instruction for students, amounts of time for student recess, processes for altering district policies, provisions for duty-free lunches and planning time for teachers, assignments of more than 60 minutes per week of non-instructional duties for teachers, and provisions on maximum student class sizes.
The approval of the waivers during a special meeting comes as the state's school systems prepare for a school year in which they are gearing up to deliver instruction to students in traditional classrooms and online to students at their homes -- while also being able to pivot quickly between the delivery systems if necessary in response to an outbreak of covid-19.
Some of the waivers will apply only on days or portions of days when instruction is delivered to students online.
The Education Board voted 5-1 for the set of waivers that will go into effect Wednesday and expire June 30, 2021.
A total of 260 school districts and open-enrollment charter school systems applied to the state by last week's deadline to be able to use the waivers if they need to. Only the Arkansas Virtual Academy and the Arkansas Connections Academy -- statewide virtual charter schools -- and the state Division of Youth Services schools did not apply for the waivers. They will not need them to be able to carry out an education program with both online and traditional classroom instruction, state education leaders said.
The applications were in the form of assurances from the districts and charter schools that they would fully carry out the Arkansas Ready for Learning blended instruction model. In the assurances, the districts pledged to use a learning management system to electronically track student achievement and a testing system to determine student learning needs. Some of the other provisions of the assurance statement call for districts to provide training for teachers on blended learning and a written communication plan for interacting with parents, students, and community members.
Ivy Pfeffer, deputy commissioner for the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the Education Board on Monday that the division staff identified waivers of state laws and rules that school districts most likely will need to meet the state-set expectations that both classroom and online instruction will be available.
Act 1240 of 2015 and charter school laws dating back 20 years authorize districts and charter schools to seek waivers of some state rules and laws. The districts and charter schools,however, typically seek that approval from the state on an individual district, case-by-case basis.
Pfeffer described the series of waivers approved Monday as a transparent and uniform approach to giving the school systems the flexibility to meet student instructional needs in the face of the pandemic emergency. She said the pandemic can no longer be an excuse for a lack of teaching and learning appropriate grade-level lessons and skills.
"We must plan to have on-site instruction and be prepared for interruptions," Pfeffer said, adding later, "What we are facing over this next school year is bigger than what any one person can handle.
"It will take a committed, collective effort to ensure our kids can continue learning no matter what the circumstances," she said.
Pfeffer and Courtney Salas-Ford, an attorney for the Elementary and Secondary Education Division, said the school systems don't have to use all or any of the waivers -- depending on their needs. The waivers they choose to use must be included in their school district support plans for the school year. Those plans must be posted on each system's website by Sept. 1 and are subject to review by the state agency.
Support plans for districts operating under state control, such as Little Rock and Pine Bluff school districts, are subject to state Education Board approval later this year.
Education Board members had received in advance of the Monday meeting some 250 emails from teachers and others who had concerns about the proposed waivers and the general reopening of school this fall.
Schools were closed in mid-March for the rest of the 2019-20 school year as a way to contain the spread of the virus. The number of people testing positive for the virus has continued to increase by hundreds a day in the state.
Salas-Ford said the specific waivers are narrowly tailored to any laws or rules that are likely to conflict with a blended education program. The waivers do not cover large sections of the state's legal code. And she said abuse of the waivers could lead to their revocation for a district by the Education Board.
Stacey McAdoo, Arkansas' 2019 Teacher of the Year and an ex officio member of the board, voiced concerns about waivers that excuse districts from having to submit proposed policy changes to their personnel policy committees 10 days in advance of a school board vote on a policy.
"I can understand why teachers feel they don't have a way to be seen or heard," McAdoo said, calling the waivers "dangerous" and "reckless."
Education Board member Adrienne Woods, who cast the sole "no" vote on the waivers, said the waivers "give carte blanche" to districts to do what they want to do.
Salas-Ford said that was an overstatement, that the districts not only have to submit their support plans for review but also that educators who abuse the waivers are subject to code-of-ethics penalties and citations for violating state standards of accreditation.
One of the waivers will enable districts to assign teachers non-instructional duties in excess of 60 minutes per week without additional pay. That waiver could be used by districts to call on teachers to assist with sanitizing schools or other tasks related to preventing the spread of covid-19 infection, state leaders have said.
Another waiver will enable school systems to adopt policies to go into effect right away -- without first acquiring approval of the policy change from the districts' personnel policy committees.
In the event of online learning, waivers will allow districts to provide a school day that varies from the standard six hours per day of instruction or 30 hours per week.
Districts will not be required to provide 40 minutes of recess on days or parts of days when technology-based instruction is being used. Similarly, districts won't be required to provide a 30-minute, duty-free lunch to teachers who are providing instruction from off-site locations. Nor will districts be required to provide 200 minutes of planning time each week to teachers who are providing instruction from off-campus locations.
As a result of the waivers, employees will not be required to use their personal and sick leave time to work from off-campus sites.
If a teacher in grades five through 12 agrees to teach more than the state-set maximum student limit, then that limit can be exceeded.
There are also waivers of class-size limits within the block of waivers being offered to school systems.