Task force takes look at district proposals

LITTLE ROCK — A task force of Pulaski County Special School District leaders and community members on Wednesday worked through the district’s preliminary plans for a school year in which fighting the corona-virus will be an all-day daily effort.

The delivery of instruction, school bus transportation, entry into school buildings and school meal service are among the elements of the school day likely to be revamped in the 12,000-student Pulaski County Special district for the coming 2020-21 school year, as they very well will be in school districts throughout the state.

Pulaski County Special district Superintendent Charles McNulty told the task force decisions for the coming school year are being made on the basis of data and information is always changing, but the district is going to commit to certain tenants to get back to a rigorous education program for all students.

“We are going to have a delivery system that meets our mission, and our mission is educating our students with equity and excellence, “McNulty said.

“We are going to provide a delivery model that uses the best health practices that are currently available or known,” he also said. “And we’re going to provide a lot of flexibility,” he said and noted that the district’s use of the Schoology learning management system should enable a student who is at home for whatever reason to engage in daily instruction with his teacher and classmates at a campus.

The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education has directed every Arkansas school district to create or select a learning management system that will give the district a platform to provide student lessons and track students’ work, be it at home or at a school building. There are multiple learning management systems available to the districts.

The Pulaski County Special district’s plans, so far, call for a blended instruction program in which students might attend school a few days a week and do school work at home online on other days.

Additionally, the district will continue to offer its virtual academy done completely online by district teachers but with no in-school attendance by students. The academy started last school year. It was initially designed to pull the area’s home-school families into the public school fold.

Can a family choose to have a student attend school on campus all five days of the week? A viewer of the online task force meeting asked.

“That’s part of the reason we are having the discussion today — to hear the voices,” McNulty said.

A task force member asked about electives such as music, art and physical education.

“We’ll have it,” Deputy Superintendent Alesia Smith said. “We have to figure it out,” she said.

Smith also offered assurances required services for special education, gifted, career and technical education, and English-language learners also will be provided to students. She also said district officials are working with community organizations and businesses to provide internet access to those who don’t have the service.

McNulty and his top-level staff members told the Ready For Learning task force of parents, school principals, athletic coaches and medical professionals that the planning — still to be finalized and approved by the School Board — is based in part on the results of parent and faculty surveys done earlier this year. Those surveys were an effort to gauge interest in different instructional delivery methods.

In the most recent survey, 3,209 respondents said they would prefer on-campus instruction five days a week — with personal protective equipment such as masks. About 3,500 others said they would prefer their students attend school for a few days a week, or attend school a full week and then work from home in alternate weeks.

Parents also were divided on allowing their children to ride the school buses, with families in the southeast section of the district requiring bus service at a greater rate than other parts of the district.

Charles Blake, the district’s director of transportation, said it appears the district can provide bus service — with drivers and aides wearing masks — with less than full student bus loads and without hiring new drivers or buying new buses.

Blake said students will be encouraged to stand 6 feet apart at bus stops, and buses will be loaded with students starting with the filling of seats in the back so as to avoid students having to pass other students to find seats. Additional bus stops may be necessary.

Janice Warren, the district’s assistant superintendent for equity and pupil services, said the district is seeking approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide breakfast and lunches to district students at no charge to families. At the same time, the district staff is exploring the best way to exchange money for the meals.

Elementary school meals will likely be served in classrooms, and there will be staggered times for middle and high school students to get their “grab and go” meals. Self-service food bars for salads and other meals will be eliminated.

Entry into school buildings will likely be preceded by no-touch temperature checks and the completion of health screening questionnaires, which some families could possibly do on a smart-phone app, Warren said at the suggestion of health professionals on the task force. Coaches at the high schools are already doing those kinds of daily checks with their athletes this summer, and it goes quickly, Robinson High School Athletic Director Todd Eskola said.

School nurses will aid school office staff members in tracking and monitoring students who are sent home ill or are otherwise absent, Warren added. Spaces will be reserved in school to isolate students and staff members who become ill.

Task force members Dr. Sara Tariq and Dr. Tamara Perry, both professors in the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine, offered advice and answered questions about the coronavirus, how it spreads and its affect on students and school operations.

Both strongly urged the wearing of masks by as many adults and students as possible in the schools as an effective way to contain the spread of the virus. Both were supportive of using a blended instructional delivery system to reduce the numbers of people in a building at any one time.

Tariq and others suggested that outdoor instruction and activities could be increased as droplets containing the virus can elevate and dissipate faster outside.

Perry encouraged finding alternatives to teachers giving and accepting hugs from young children.

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