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Prairie Grove School Drops Mask Mandate

BOARD APPROVES BONUSES, VIRTUAL UPDATE by Lynn Kutter | May 2, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

PRAIRIE GROVE -- It was a quick decision made by Prairie Grove School Board at the end of its meeting last week: the board unanimously voted to make face coverings optional for students and staff, effective immediately April 21.

Board member Bart Orr spoke first, recommending the school "suspend the requirement to wear masks."

A school survey showed that 53% of the staff supported making masks optional and 47% wanted to continue with a mask mandate. A survey of parents showed that out of 186 responses, 66% wanted masks optional and 34% said they preferred to keep a mask mandate.

Superintendent Reba Holmes said the district would continue to follow other safety precautions for covid-19, such as maintaining a 6-foot social distance among staff and students whenever possible. Employees and students will still have to quarantine or isolate if they test positive for covid-19 or come into close contact with someone who has the virus.

Board member Casie Ruland pointed out students and staff can still wear masks if they want to and that it's everyone's choice on whether they want to wear a mask or not.

The board also approved a 5% bonus from the base of certified and classified salaries for district employees, not to exceed $2,000 and not lower than $1,000.

Holmes said she felt comfortable recommending the bonuses, which will cost the district $506,469. The district, not knowing upfront how revenue and expenses would be affected by the pandemic, cut 15% across the board of its budgets this year, Holmes said.

Pete Joenks, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, gave an update on some changes for the future.

Joenks said the district is looking for more ways to directly work with students and teachers and will hire two instructional coaches for the 2021-22 school year. One will work with elementary grades through middle school in literacy and the other will be assigned to the upper grades to assist with math.

The coaches will go into the classrooms to observe and help teachers with their instruction, Joenks said. Administration is interviewing candidates for the positions and Holmes said she probably would call a special meeting to approve the literacy and math coaches.

The district also is considering a recommendation for interventionists who will be able to pull kids out for tutoring.

In addition, Joenks said the Boston Mountain Educational Service Cooperative is looking for someone to help in a mental, health or social worker capacity. This person would be available to school districts for mental health.

The district will have a five-week summer school program for intensive reading and to help students recover credit.

Joenks said the district will provide breakfast and lunch for the students and is discussing the possibility of running a bus route for younger students.

At the high school, students will work on a computer but a teacher will be available to assist as needed.

Joenks said about 15 teachers have offered to work this summer.

Holmes said the district is receiving $1.6 million from the third round of federal covid-relief funds. This money will be used for the new instructional coaches, summer school costs and to replace HVAC systems to improve ventilation in school buildings.

The board approved the updated Digital Learning Plan for the 2021-22 school year, as presented by Joenks. A survey showed that about 95% of parents want their child to attend school in person next year.

The district will not offer virtual instruction for kindergarten-sixth grade, except for those students who are medically fragile. Those students will attend virtually through the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative and use the Florida Virtual curriculum. The update includes a Plan B in case covid cases rise over the summer, Joenks said.

Virtual instruction will be available for the middle school, junior high and high school. Middle school students will be assigned to a teacher for streaming video and audio to engage in instruction. The junior high and high school will use a learning management platform.

In other action, the board approved a memorandum of understanding with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith for concurrent classes. Students will be able to take college algebra and Computer Applications for the Knowledge Work to earn high school and college or technical credit. The cost will be $125 per course for students and $1,950 for the district. Students will have to meet a criteria to be able to take a course.

High school math teacher Evan Hubbard received the Outstanding Teacher Award for the month of April from Sam's Furniture.

For the consent agenda, the board accepted resignations from elementary teacher Jamie Higgins and RoseMary Anderson, a food service employee. It did not renew the teaching contract for Ulysses Ruley for 2021-22.

The board approved two student transfers from Prairie Grove to Farmington and two student transfers from Farmington to Prairie Grove.

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