The Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts are shifting to virtual instruction for at least today and Friday because of rising cases of covid-19 and related quarantines.
Leaders of Central Arkansas' two largest school systems detailed the plans to pivot to online instruction in announcements Wednesday, the first day of classes for the second semester.
In North Little Rock, seventh- and eighth-grade students who started their second half of the school year Tuesday and Wednesday with virtual instruction will continue with online learning today and Friday.
A handful of other school systems around the state, including the Hope School District, made decisions Wednesday to go to virtual instruction in the coming days.
In a Facebook Live video message to parents and in a subsequent interview, Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore said the rapidly increasing numbers of employees and students who have covid or covid symptoms or who must be quarantined because of exposure led to the decision to switch to virtual instruction.
He emphasized how important in-person instruction is to students academically and emotionally, but he said that the covid data made available Wednesday made it clear that virtual instruction "is the appropriate next step."
He said that at one point Wednesday morning, while he was conversing for 10 minutes with a district staff member who takes covid calls, 15 more cases were called in.
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By 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, about 200 employees, including 155 teachers, had called to say they would not be at work. Dozens of others were already known to have covid or were waiting on covid test results, Poore said.
The district has expanded from three members to nine its point-of-contact team that reports and tracks the covid cases.
"They can't keep up," Poore said. "This is impacting food service. It impacts transportation. It impacts teachers and obviously impacts students. In my mind, the best thing we can do for the safety of all -- students and staff -- is to go with a virtual delivery Thursday and Friday."
Teachers will teach from their homes, and students will be expected to use their school-issued devices to log on to the Schoology platform to receive and complete assignments, representatives of both the Little Rock and the Pulaski County Special districts said.
Leaders in both districts will evaluate their situations Sunday to determine whether the remote instruction will need to continue into next week.
Poore said there is "a high likelihood" that it will be necessary at some, if not all, schools in the 21,000-student Little Rock district. Efforts were being made with the city of Little Rock to provide school meals for students, but those plans were not publicized as of Wednesday evening.
The Little Rock superintendent urged students and employees to use self-discipline, wear masks, avoid large gatherings in the coming days and get their vaccinations to defend against the highly transmissible omicron variant of covid-19.
Nancy Rousseau, principal at Little Rock's Central High, sent parents information Wednesday on how school athletics are being handled.
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"Middle schools will cancel all practices and games for the remainder of this week," she wrote. "High schools will practice, using covid protocols, and play their away games.
"Central's ninth-grade basketball home games with Marion -- scheduled for Thursday at Central -- have been cancelled. This applies to our winter sports only -- basketball, wrestling, swimming and indoor track. Spring sports will not be practicing at this time," the principal said.
Elsewhere in the state, the Hope School District is pivoting to virtual instruction starting today for two to four days, according to a report the district provided to the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The Springhill School District, near Hope in southwest Arkansas, is closed for the rest of the week because of a staff and substitute shortage.
The Hampton School District in south Arkansas is shifting to remote instruction starting today for up to five days.
Also on Wednesday, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement reported that the number of Arkansas public school districts with community covid-19 infection rates of 50 or more per 10,000 district residents had increased fivefold, from 28 districts last week to 138 of the state's 261 districts and charter systems this week.