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El Dorado, Strong-Huttig follow Smackover, PC in pivot to virtual instruction

by Caitlan Butler | January 14, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.
The El Dorado School District Administration Building is seen on Thursday, Jan. 13. (Matt Hutcheson/News-Times)

The El Dorado and Strong-Huttig school districts both announced on Thursday that they would be pivoting away from in-classroom instruction today due to the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases in the community.

The Smackover-Norphlet and Parkers Chapel school districts also moved to at-home instruction earlier this week.

El Dorado and Strong's announcements came as Union County and the State of Arkansas both saw the largest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, something that has become a relatively common occurrence in the last two weeks as the omicron variant of the virus has spread through communities across the world.

El Dorado School District (ESD) Superintendent Jim Tucker said staff shortages were the reason for the district's pivot.

"They were steadily going down. We had several leave today, had a principal start getting sick," he said. "If we can't staff, then we definitely can't have school. Staffing was going to be nearly impossible -- if not impossible -- and we wouldn't even know until school had started if that would be possible, so that's why we decided to go virtual."

Tucker said earlier this week, following the SNSD's decision to go virtual, that he hoped to avoid transitioning to AMI (Alternative Methods of Instruction); but on Thursday, he said that even before the decision to pivot was made, the district was having challenges with staffing with some teachers sick and others out for scheduled professional development.

"It gets to the point where if you have a (substitute teacher) in every classroom, then, really, how much learning and teaching is taking place?" he said. "It got to the point where we had classes doubled up, had subs in a lot of the classrooms, and we need to give teachers the opportunity to get well so they can get back in the classrooms themselves."

The student absentee rate in the ESD was 24.53% on Thursday, Tucker said, stressing that teacher absences played into the decision to pivot "more than anything else."

ESD students will continue learning today through the district's AMI strategy, which includes remote learning through Google platforms. Full details are available in Section II of the district's 2021/2022 Ready for Learning Plan, which can be read in full at eldoradopublicschools.org.

Grab-and-go lunches will be provided today from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Northwest Elementary School, 1600 N. College Ave., and Washington Middle School, 601 S. Martin Luther King Blvd. An active lunch code number will need to be provided to get a lunch.

In-classroom instruction is set to resume on Tuesday, Jan. 18, following the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday on Monday.

"If we have staff that are able to return to work and staff those classrooms," Tucker said.

Strong-Huttig

Strong-Huttig School District (SHSD) Superintendent Kimberly Thomas also pointed to staffing troubles as reason for the district's decision to pivot to AMI.

"Not all of the faculty absences are COVID-related, but Fridays are always the hardest day to find a substitute, even when COVID is not a factor," she said. "Our staffing agency was unable to fill three positions today."

Students should have received printed AMI packets or instructions on how to access Google Classroom, depending on their grade level and the class subject, on Thursday when they left school, Thomas said. Emails were also sent to students on how to access Google Classroom assignments, she said.

Full details on the SHSD's AMI strategy are available on the district website, strong.k12.ar.us. Teachers will be available via email for students that need assistance today.

Thomas said breakfasts and lunches for today were sent home with students Thursday.

At-school instruction is expected to resume for the SHSD on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

Thomas said that while students are out of school, the district will perform a deep-clean on school campuses.

"We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, but we are taking all possible steps to ensure the safety and well-being of all students and staff," she said.

The Strong-Huttig School Board is scheduled to meet on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the Strong High School Library.

Parkers Chapel, Smackover-Norphlet

The Smackover-Norphlet School District (SNSD) announced Tuesday that it would transition to AMI through today due to student and staff cases of and exposures to COVID-19.

At a regular school board meeting Monday night, SNSD Superintendent Jason Black said quarantine numbers were up to 24% of students in the district along with 14 to 15% of staff.

The Parkers Chapel School District (PCSD) opted to pivot to AMI on Wednesday. They too plan to clean district campuses, according to a post on the district website.

The PCSD had previously announced a temporary mask mandate following a special-called school board meeting on Sunday amid the spike in COVID-19 cases in the community.

Both the SNSD and PCSD are also set to return to in-class instruction on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

AMI information for the SNSD is available at smackover.net and the Buckaroo Blog. PCSD students can access AMI information at parkerschapelschool.com.

COVID in the community

Union County added a record-breaking 142 new COVID-19 cases to its cumulative total on Thursday, and active cases reached their highest level yet with 849 local residents currently infected with the virus. Two local residents' deaths that resulted from COVID were also reported Thursday.

Lisa Antoon, marketing director for Medical Center of South Arkansas, said there were 18 COVID patients being cared for at MCSA on Thursday morning, including six who were in the ICU, two of whom were on ventilator support.

"We encourage all members of the community to take precautions," Antoon said. "Wear a mask in public, stay at home when you are sick and get vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible. Vaccines remain the best strategy for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our community."

According to a report on the number of active cases among students and staff at Arkansas schools produced by the Arkansas Department of Health on Thursday, every district in the county besides the PCSD had five or more students and/or staff or faculty members presenting with COVID yesterday.

There were 65 active cases within the SNSD on Thursday, according to the report, as well as 11 in the ESD; nine in the SHSD; and eight in the Junction City School District (JCSD).

So far this year, 159 total COVID-19 cases have been identified in SNSD staff, faculty and students; 190 in ESD staff, faculty and students; 12 in SHSD staff, faculty and students; and 49 in JCSD staff, faculty and students.

South Arkansas Community College also reported 11 active cases on Thursday; so far this school year, 55 COVID-19 cases have been identified in the college's staff, faculty and students.

The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement also released an updated report on COVID-19 spread in school districts Thursday. The ACHI's report shows the number of new cases per 10,000 residents within each public school district in Arkansas over the two week-period preceding the report's publication.

According to the report, in the period from Dec. 27 through Monday, Jan. 10, 200-plus cases were identified per 10,000 residents of the ESD's area; and 100 to 199 cases per 10,000 residents were identified in the SNSD, SHSD, JCSD and PCSD's areas.

The state as a whole also saw a record increase of nearly 13,000 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday. Active cases were higher than ever in Arkansas yesterday, when they reached 79,346.

In the last week, 14,367 pediatric COVID cases -- cases in children under the age of 18 -- have been identified in Arkansas, and the number of active cases in children has more than doubled in that time, even as schools across the state have closed their doors in in-person instruction.

Tucker asked students to be cautious and safe over the holiday weekend.

"I want them all to stay safe. If they don't feel well, they need to stay home," he said. "Obviously, this is a very contagious variant we're dealing with, and as you're home (Friday), stay home. Do the school work that's been provided to you and try to do the same over the long weekend. If you're going out to a function in public or parties or anything, it's going to spread worse, so let's try to stay home and try to get this to die down a little bit."

Print Headline: El Dorado, Strong-Huttig follow Smackover, PC in pivot to virtual instruction

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