In a three-hour work session Monday, the Little Rock School Board focused like a laser on covid-related matters, questioning two physicians about health safety, pondering employee leave plans and asking questions about in-school achievement testing.
"Every major decision like this has a risk-benefit ratio," Dr. Rick Barr of Arkansas Children's said in response to board members' questions about student and employee health safety and the emotional well-being of students in a pandemic where adults, in particular, are ill and some are dying.
"There's a risk to social isolation and poverty exacerbates that," Barr said. "There is a risk to being in school and all of the effects of possible transmissions to adults who have co-morbid conditions. It really comes down to weighing all the risks and trying to make the best decisions for the kids in that environment. There are no easy answers," he said, adding that kids have struggled emotionally in multiple ways with the stress on their families and their learning environment.
He told the board he doesn't expect the issue to ease until the vaccinations against covid-19 are administered to a large part of the population. Children and youths 16 and under will not be given the vaccines until more study is done on the effect of the vaccine on that age group.
Barr noted that Children's hospital, which admits some 10,000 patients a year, has treated 182 children for covid-19 in Little Rock and 52 children in Northwest Arkansas. Not all of those even showed symptoms but were admitted to the hospitals for other medical conditions. He also said there have been 18 young people admitted for what has been the rare post-covid multisensory inflammatory syndrome that can affect the heart, kidneys, joints and skin.
Dr. Joel Tumlinson of the Arkansas Department of Health told the board that schools are relatively, but not completely, safe for students.
"Is it absolutely safe? No," Tumlinson said in response to a question from School Board member Jeff Wood. "The only thing that would be safe in that respect is to stay at home, everyone, and not go anywhere.
"Right now, with the measures being taken, if those measures continue and schools continue to look at their process and make sure that they are doing the best they can ... we see time and again that they didn't get [covid] in school, they got it outside. There is very little spread in school, just very isolated cases in sports and things like that. It makes me think it is relatively safe compared to the other things they might be doing if they weren't in class."
Tumlinson said that decisions for a school or district to pivot to virtual instruction are made jointly by the school system and the Arkansas departments of Health and Education. The state agencies provide ideas for the school systems, he said, adding that the school districts in the state are working hard to minimize the spread of covid-19 and having a good effect. Frequently the reason for having to shift for a time to virtual instruction is the result of staff shortages, he said.
In response to School Board President Vicki Hatter, Tumlinson said there are no set number of covid cases for triggering a school's pivot to virtual instruction.
School Board member Ali Noland asked if there are any school districts in the state that have employed third-party auditors to ensure the accuracy of district reports of covid-19. Tumlinson said he and other state officials do some of that kind of checking but he knew of no outside audit organization doing that.
PAID LEAVE TIME
The School Board, which was holding only its second meeting since it was seated after the Nov. 3 and Dec. 1 runoff elections, received drafts of multiple proposals for providing the district's approximately 3,400 employees with paid leave time if they contract covid-19 or must quarantine because of covid exposure -- without using their regular sick leave.
Superintendent Mike Poore and his staff are consulting with the personnel policies committees for both the teachers and support staff on the terms of a resolution that will be on the agenda of a School Board agenda/training meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
Poore and Robert Robinson, executive director of human resources for the district, are recommending that up to 20 days be provided to teachers for covid leave. The personnel policies committee for teachers has proposed, instead, that employees be given up to 10 days of leave "per occurrence."
The 20-day proposal would cost the district an estimated $2,854,405. That is based on as many as 800 of the district's certified employees and 500 of its support staff employees needing the leave and being unable to work from their homes. Those who are able to work from home would not take leave but the district would still have to hire substitute employees to physically supervise a teacher's classroom -- while the teacher is working online with students.
School districts statewide were able to provide covid-19 leave in the first semester of the school year with $15 million in special federal funding that expired Dec. 31.
Additional federal funding has been approved for the 2021 calendar year, including more than $500 million for education in Arkansas. Allocations of that money to school districts has not yet been announced. The money is to be used for a range of expenses resulting from the covid pandemic, including replacement laptops and other technology for students and teachers, personal protection equipment and even ventilation systems.
Poore and Deputy Superintendent Jeremy Owoh reported to the board that 67% of the district's elementary students -- including pre-kindergarten pupils -- are attending school in person this semester, as are 50% of middle school students and 55% of high school students, with the remainder receiving remote instruction.
That prompted questions from the board about whether students who are learning remotely must take standardized Measure of Academic Progress and the ACT Aspire on campus. The Measure of Academic Progress that is being given this month can be taken by students at home, Danyell Cummings, the district's testing coordinator, said. But the spring administration of the Measure of Academic Progress to kindergarten through second grade must be taken on campus. The Aspire test in grades 3 through 10 must also be taken by students on campus.
Owoh said plans are being made to give the tests to some students in currently unused school buildings to create adequate physical distancing and health safety for students an the test proctors. A school that fails to test at least 95% of its eligible students will see its state-applied annual A-to-F letter grade lowered, district officials said.