Update: Governor Extends School Closures to End of Academic Year

Update: Governor Extends School Closures to End of Academic Year
Johnny Key, secretary of the state Department of Education, speaks Monday during Gov. Asa Hutchinson's daily coronavirus update press conference. (Arkansas Governor's Office/YouTube)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday announced that he is extending the closure of Arkansas schools through the end of the school year.

The governor said he based the decision on public health concerns. He said students would continue with alternative methods of instruction through the end of the school year.

The governor cited data that showed the time for the number of COVID-19 cases in the state to double has lengthened from one day to seven days — evidence he said shows Arkansas has been successful in slowing the spread of the virus. Still, he said it's clear the outbreak will continue for some time.

Education Secretary Johnny Key said Arkansas AMI, its partnership with Arkansas PBS that broadcasts education content weekday mornings, had planned to run through April 17. But Key said the program will continue through May 1, giving school districts time to move ahead with their own AMI.

“Most districts have indicated they have the capacity to continue AMI delivery through the end of the school year,” Key said. The department will work with education service cooperatives to help districts in need of additional support, including small and rural districts and districts in far-flung parts of the state. Charter schools will also receive support from the department and from the Arkansas Public School Resource Center.

School districts are also looking to expand the capacity of internet connectivity where feasible, Key said. 

“Many of our districts had been waiting to see what was going to happen with the rest of the school year before they move forward with purchases and trying to make sure that that was available throughout the district,” he said. “And now we expect that more districts will make those services available.”

Meal delivery and meals-to-go options will continue to be offered for school-aged children, he said.

Key encouraged schools and educators to be “flexible;” focus on core content such as math, literacy, science and social studies; and to refrain from introducing new content. 

“It isn’t practical to try to replicate the school experience when children are at home,” he said. “So we need to help parents and students by establishing flexible schedules for learning that consider that they may need access to learning supports outside of the typical [8 a.m.-3 p.m.] school day schedule. … This is a time for more emphasis on support and learning and less emphasis on compliance.”

Key said high school seniors in good standing as of the end of the third nine weeks will have met the state requirements for graduation, but local requirements are still in effect. There are about 35,000-38,000 high school seniors in Arkansas per year, he said. 

Advanced placement tests, which students take to earn college credits, can now be taken at home. The state is working to reschedule on-site ACT Aspire exams. Those exams are used to measure Arkansas school performance, and Key said there is no word on whether those tests will be available for students to take at home.

Asked if next school year would start early, Key said there would be a “ripple effect” but the department is still figuring out what that effect will be. 

Arkansas now has 875 cases of COVID-19 in Arkansas, including 74 hospitalizations, the governor said. Twenty-two patients are on ventilators, there have been 16 deaths and 102 people have recovered from the virus.

In addition, the state has sent five ventilators to Louisiana, which the governor called a COVID-19 “hotspot.”

Hutchinson also briefly addressed state Sen. Trent Garner’s proposal to prohibit the state Commerce Department and Arkansas Economic Development Commission from funding an office or liaison in China. 

In a tweet on Monday, Garner said it was “time to hold China accountable for the #WuhanVirus in Arkansas and to move away from our dependency on them for vital goods like [personal protective equipment masks].”

“I think it’s short-sighted,” the governor said, responding to Garner’s idea. “Whenever you look at the second leading economic power in the world and to think that, when we have the presence of Tyson Foods, the sale of our agricultural products to China, whenever Walmart is there in China, to think that we’re not going to have a relationship and a business relationship in the future is short-sighted and somewhat isolationist. … I’m a realist.”

Hutchinson said the proposal sends the wrong message that the state doesn’t want to do business with China. He added that there had already been a reduced staff allocation concerning AEDC’s office in China, and that he has expressed his concerns to Garner.