Regarding COVID-19 protocol at school this fall, “nothing is off the table,” according to Assistant Supt. Mark Rush.
This includes mask wearing or a return to all-virtual school, depending on how the current outbreak progresses and how the Arkansas Department of Health responds to it.
Local school administrators are taking steps to help return things to normal, however, including incentivizing vaccinations for staff and preparing a digital learning plan that will encourage students to return to the classroom.
Supt. Brent Howard recommended to the board July 12 that the district pay $200 to any employee who has gotten a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 1.
Other districts are giving similar incentives, and the schools can use funding provided by the state’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), he said.
The board approved the vaccine payments over the objection of one member, Lori Dobbins.
“Here we are using ESSER funds to entice someone to get the vaccine, and to me that’s a personal decision,” Dobbins said. “It’s like saying, ‘here’s a lotto ticket.’ ... I will not be for this.”
Board member Rachelle Stewart said the COVID outbreak is bad in small communities like Fox, and she fears this year could be even worse than last.
“And it’s hitting younger people more than the other one did,” she said.
“I’m worried,” Howard added.
Stewart commented that the teachers and students won’t be wearing masks at school this year, but Howard said that could still happen.
Rush, who has been in charge of the district’s COVID response, agreed.
“I felt better a month ago than I do now,” he said.
Rush presented the board with the district’s digital learning plan, which they adopted pending final approval by the state.
Rush said before the Delta variant surfaced, this option was intended only for students who have documented medical issues that would require them to work from home. It was meant to be used for rare situations. Now, Arkansas Department of Health guidelines will determine how the program is implemented.
Howard and Rush emphasized, though, that their priority will be getting students back in the classrooms, as well as lessening the burden on teachers.
Local teachers will not be doing any of the virtual work for students who choose a digital option, Howard explained. They will be required to teach virtually only if the school pivots to all-virtual learning.
For students who choose digital school, courses will be provided by a company called Red Comet, Rush said. The company is approved by the Arkansas Department of Education to provide digital courses.
Rush said Red Comet seemed most willing to work around the district’s schedule and students’ needs. The digital courses are taught by certified Arkansas teachers and will follow the same schedule as the local schools.
The district is required to offer a virtual option. However, it will be much more restrictive this year. Anyone choosing virtual school must attend an interview and provide a documented reason. Virtual students will be required to stay with that format for at least one full semester, and they will not be approved if they do not have a prior history of success with virtual learning.
“Our primary focus this year is on in-person learning,” Howard said.
Read the full story in the July 21 issue.