The Hamburg School Board conducted a special meeting Monday night, July 27, to discuss many of the changes that will take place during the 2020-2021 school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The board voted unanimously to add 15 minutes to the school day to make up for the seven days missed because of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s recent decision to delay the start date until Aug. 24.
Additionally, the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education recently directed Arkansas school districts to prepare an education program for the coming school year that relies on face-to-face and online instruction with the flexibility to blend them and to pivot from one to the other. One of the first tasks is for districts to select someone to be a point of contact to answer questions about COVID-19 and serve as a liaison between a school district and state education and health agencies.
Another early requirement for districts this summer is to form local Ready for Learning committees whose members have specialized skills to address each of the areas of district operations. The committee can coordinate the return to on-site student instruction and monitor as situations change throughout the school year.
Superintendent Tracy Streeter said that she wanted to appoint Chris Hammond as the point of contact, but because no one knows how much additional work the position will actually entail, she wanted to wait before determining a stipend for it. The school board and Hammond both agreed that the payment could be determined and backdated at a later time based on the amount of after-hours work necessary.
Streeter said other employees will need to be hired as the district figures out the needs for contact tracing, disinfecting or other needs that require an extra person to ensure that Hamburg is meeting state guidelines and protecting students.
The board had a discussion about a three-day virtual, two-day in-person learning plan that Streeter presented. She said that Hamburg was the third largest district in terms of square mileage in the state and that makes it unique in how they needed to address the situation. Hamburg also has a large number of students who are in the Delta and who do not have access to reliable Internet service. Coming to school two days a week will allow students to download everything they need during those two days so that they will have school work on the other three days. Streeter said should the schools close completely, employees may have to get on buses or in vehicles to drive hot spots or take thumb drives to students who aren’t able to access the Internet.
The state has advised that the schools should plan for blended learning and be prepared for the event of a shut down. Hamburg district will start out in Phase 2 of the state plan, Streeter said, but should COVID cases spike they could easily be set back to Phase 1. Some of the school board members expressed concerned about the “loose” terminology involved with the phases. Streeter said that those were the guidelines given by the state and they were very loose, but she didn’t have any control over it. One of the discussion participants pointed out that the need for the loose language was because 10 high school teachers getting sick would mean an immediate shut down for the high school, whereas if 10 students get sick and it can be controlled or isolated, the district might be able to stay open.
Some of the school board members still expressed concerns about the plan and the lack of Internet. Streeter said that she didn’t have many details yet, but that more CARES ACT money had been designated for rural Internet needs specifically and she was hoping to have information on that soon.
Coach Cecil Ray Cossey said that he could set up each of the school board members to run a demonstration of the virtual learning program so that they could better understand it and answer questions that their constituents have about it and the plan.
“We hope that if you hear concerns from people in your zone, that you will bring them to us because the only way we can solve problems is if we know about them,” Cossey said.
Streeter said that while the Internet will never be the speed it is in other places and virtual school is not ideal, she wanted to do whatever she could to keep the students safe and ensure that they are getting the best education possible using whatever avenues they had to use.
Streeter said there is always hope that Phase 2 will quickly transition into Phase 3, but that she wanted students, teachers, staff and parents to all be prepared in the event that they are forced to revert back to phase one.
Streeter said she will be updating the school district’s website and social media accounts as information becomes available. The next school board meeting will be Aug. 10.