LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The extended weekend will continue Tuesday for more than 20,000 students in the Little Rock School District. And while the buildings remain closed due to concerns about the flu, many parents say their main concern is that their children should be using these days to learn.
Superintendent Michael Poore chose to make up two days at a later date rather than use Alternative Methods of Instruction (AMI) days when he announced Sunday that the district would close due to an abnormally high number of staff members calling in sick.
“I was shocked,” Vicki Hatter said of her reaction to getting the message Sunday evening.
Michelle Davis said she was at work Sunday evening when she got the message, which the district distributed through robocall, email, social media, and its website.
She felt fortunate that she was already scheduled to have Monday off. “You know, my shifts start at 6:00 in the morning, 6:30, and don’t end until 7:00, 7:30 at night,” she explained. “So, it’s not an easy thing to get covered.”
Hatter said the timing of the announcement, which came just before 6:00 p.m. Sunday, led to a stressful evening for many parents.
“Parents was calling around, trying to figure out who could watch what kids, how would they rearrange their schedules,” she said. “So, I ended up having a couple kids come over."
Davis also hosted children for families that had no other option. She, Hatter, and many other parents wished their children had schoolwork they could complete.
“We’ve already been given the AMI packets,” Davis said. “I have them all sitting in the desks at home. My kids could’ve completed those today, no problem.”
AMI days were created by the Arkansas Legislature in 2017. They are a way for school districts to maintain the continuity of education during unexpected days off during events such as severe weather, contagious disease outbreaks, and power outages.
In its announcement, the district stated that more than 250 staff members called out sick Sunday, nearly twice as many as the week prior.
In a written statement Monday, LRSD said, “implementing LRSD's approved plan for AMI days requires the ability of staff to support student instruction virtually. However, because of the number of staff who called in sick and high student absences, it would be insensitive to expect effective educational engagement under these circumstances.”
Hatter and Davis both said that explanation did not make sense to them. “There has never been this expectation that they’re going to be teaching remotely when we have our AMI days,” Davis said.
“I’m not aware of that at my school, or my current school, or past schools that my kids have been at,” Hatter added.
Hatter also mentioned that other Arkansas school districts have utilized AMI days when they closed due to flu, and LRSD used AMI days for Rockefeller and MLK elementary schools when they were closed last week.
Davis said she took offense to part of LRSD’s statement that referenced the teachers’ union.
The Little Rock Education Association released a letter Sunday night that said it could not comment on the medical status of its teachers, but the “confirmed sickness in LRSD” was the way the State Board of Education has run the district since it disbanded the local school board in 2015.
“It is hoped that teachers would never abuse sick leave and that the letter sent out by the Little Rock Education Association would not be used as justification to disrupt the learning environment,” the district’s statement said.
“The decision to close combined every data point that was available to LRSD. It was important to the District to make a decision of this magnitude as quickly as possible so parents would have adequate time to make appropriate plans.”
“It almost made me feel like, as a parent, they wanted me to be upset at our educators for this having taken place,” Davis said. “Any effort, even if it’s subtle, to turn the parents or the communities against the educators, it’s not going to work, because I know who has the best interest of my children in mind, and it is those educators. It’s not the State Board of Education, it is those educators.”
Davis also wondered why hiring substitute teachers was not an option this week. She mentioned that LRSD hired substitutes in November when more than 700 staff members participated in a one-day strike.
Hatter said she hoped this closure and parents’ reaction would force the district to improve its lines of communication with parents. “Communication, as we’ve been saying for a long time, it really needs to improve,” she said.
“We can’t control the illnesses, but, too, we can control the way that we respond and plan to get the word out.”
Students are scheduled to return to class Wednesday.