Students at Little Rock district receiving 2 options; on-site or virtual offerings for fall

story.lead_photo.captionFILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.
Gavin Lesnick

The Little Rock School District has unveiled its plan for the coming school year.

The district will offer in-person and virtual instruction this fall, according to an open letter posted Wednesday on its website,

“Little Rock School District students will have the option of attending school on-site or virtually (online) for the 2020-2021 school year,” according to the letter. “If your student or anyone in your household has underlying health issues, we suggest that you consider virtual (online) learning this year.”

The first day of school is scheduled for Aug. 13. Parents and guardians have until July 6 to decide if their children will attend school on-site or virtually.

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“If no response is received,” the letter says, “it will be assumed the student is attending school in person.”

The school district “strongly recommends” that students ages 10 and older wear face coverings, according to the letter. Parents are encouraged to send masks to school with their children, but if a parent doesn’t have one, the school district will have disposable masks available.

Students are encouraged to bring their own laptop, tablet computer or cellphone. If they don’t have one, the district will provide one.

Kelsey Bailey, the district’s chief financial officer, said last week that the district had ordered about 1,000 Chromebook computers to supplement the thousands of devices already purchased in recent months for student use. The district is competing with school districts nationwide for the devices, which will be paid for with federal coronavirus aid.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key have repeatedly said they want the state’s more than 1,000 school campuses to reopen to students and teachers in mid-August after being closed since mid-March.

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“We are going to have to have a school year where we have the maximum amount of flexibility with the intent to have as normal a school year as possible — that gives students the best education as possible,” Hutchinson said last week.

“Students who attend school on-site will have as normal an experience as possible,” according to the district’s letter.

The school district will replace two online education programs — itsLearning and Edmentum — with Schoolology, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade learning management and assessment platform.

“On-site classes will be taught normally with the addition of all teachers utilizing ​Schoology​ to enhance instruction,” according to the letter. “If we should be required to close schools again, the use of​ Schoology​ will allow staff and students to transition to full online instruction as seamlessly as possible while still allowing for student/teacher interaction.”

A total of 3,307 parents and 1,181 teachers responded to a recent survey about their access to computers and the internet, and their opinions about the quality of lessons provided to district students in the spring by Edmentum and itsLearning.

The parents and teachers reported that there was a steep learning curve for using the virtual lessons last spring, according to the survey results. Teachers need to be able to customize the lessons to their students, respondents also said.

Elective courses were not taught after schools were closed, and those courses were missed, a majority of respondents said. Younger students needed more structure and routine in their virtual learning programs, they said.

The surveys also addressed the need for computer devices and internet availability for families. There are some teachers who don’t have computers or computers with webcams necessary for teaching. Fewer than 1% of the 3,307 parent responders said their children do not have internet access. The district has more than 20,000 students.

Students who attend school virtually will have access to the same curriculum and special services as students attending on-site, according to the Little Rock district’s plan. Instruction will be accessed via Schoology and guided by an assigned district teacher.

“Students will be expected to participate in the virtual environment daily, however, schedules may be fluid to meet the needs of students,” according to the letter. “Attendance will be taken daily.”

Students​ ​who attend school virtually will​ be allowed to participate in and attend extracurricular activities and other events.

“Students ​will​ ​maintain their seat in their assigned school,” according to the letter. “Choosing virtual instruction will not affect a student’s school placement for the following year.”

The letter didn’t address some issues, such as whether the sizes of on-site classes will be reduced and whether masks will be required for students when riding school buses.

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