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The School Board for the Pulaski County Special School District on Tuesday approved a calendar for the 2021-22 school year that is notable for what it doesn't say: Wednesdays -- as of now -- will be half-days for students.

The board voted on the calendar at a meeting in which members tabled until February the annual evaluation of the superintendent.

Shawn Burgess, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources, said district leaders intend to continue into the new school year the practice of half-day Wednesdays that was started this school year.

The once-a-week early release of students is intended to give employees time for lesson planning and school cleaning at a time when the covid-19 global pandemic has resulted in the district providing in-person instruction on campus, online instruction to remote learners and a hybrid of online and in-person instruction -- and sometimes having to pivot from one to the other.

Burgess said the calendar for the new school year -- developed in collaboration with the district's employee personnel policy committees -- omits a specific reference to the half-day Wednesdays as a way to accommodate any as-yet unknown state directives and to lessen the chance of having to alter the calendar.

"It gives us the flexibility of either/or," Burgess told the board. "If the state tells us to go one way, we will have the flexibility of communicating that to our parents."

Superintendent Charles McNulty advocated for the calendar when board members, who ultimately approved it 4-2, expressed some reservations.

"I wish I could say we would be back to normal next year, but we fully anticipate we will be very much under covid restrictions in 2021-22," McNulty said. "We have asked our professional staff to do an awful lot under ... unfathomable conditions. We introduced Schoology [online learning management system]. We have introduced new curriculum. We have introduced a new writing approach. We have professional learning."

All of the staff training for those initiatives would be "very expensive" to provide to employees in hours after the standard school day.

"The half-day allows us to clean buildings .... and to provide the professional development to not just make Pulaski County Special the best district in the county and Central Arkansas, but we want to rival ... national competitors," he said. He added that district scale scores on the NWEA Measure of Academic Progress last fall were better than last year's scale scores, despite the pandemic that hit the state in March.

"That shows our professionals are learning and growing, but it takes time," he said of the interim tests that districts use to track student progress in math, reading and language arts.

Board President Linda Remele said she will oppose the weekly early release of students next school year if statewide pandemic requirements are lifted by August.

"We need to be back to regular," she said. "Parents need their kids in school. And with having missed so much school in the last 1½ years, I hate to cut out another half-day. I'm against 4½-day school next year if circumstances don't require us to have it."

Remele and board member Stephen Delaney voted against the plan.

Board members Alicia Gillen, Shelby Thomas, Eli Keller and Brian Maune voted for it. Gillen asked that efforts be made to notify parents in a timely way so they can make plans for child care and transportation on the early release days.

Maune noted that other districts keep school buildings open on early release or virtual days for students who need adult supervision.

The newly approved calendar calls for classes to start for students on Aug. 16 and end May 30, 2022. There will be a weeklong fall break for students Nov. 22-26. Dec. 20 will be a virtual school day, and students will be out of classes Dec. 21 through Jan. 4.

Also Tuesday, McNulty relayed to the board the news from Gov. Asa Hutchinson earlier in the day that school district employees are eligible as of Monday to receive covid-19 vaccines. He said that district administrators are waiting for directives from the state leaders on how and when those vaccines will be made available to employees.

District leaders are also waiting to learn from the state how more than $550 million in new federal funding for education in Arkansas will be divided among school systems and other entities to help offset costs generated by the precautions taken against the virus.

The district is already providing employees through at least February with leave time -- separate from their traditional sick leave days -- if they contract covid or must quarantine because of covid exposure. The district is providing the special leave in anticipation that the new federal funding can be used in part for the expense of substitutes to cover employee absences.

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