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State board approves waivers for Arkansas school districts moving to alternate calendars

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State board approves waivers for Arkansas school districts moving to alternate calendars

Feb 22, 2024 | 7:30 am ET
By Antoinette Grajeda
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State board approves waivers for Arkansas school districts moving to alternate calendars
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(Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

Arkansas education officials on Wednesday voted to allow half the state’s public school districts to add time to each school day for the rest of the year to make up for January’s snow days. 

The shift from a traditional days-based calendar to an alternate hourly calendar comes as January’s severe winter weather highlighted the LEARNS Act’s practical elimination of alternative methods of instruction (AMI) days, which districts used in recent years to offer virtual instruction when schools were closed for weather, disease outbreaks or utility outages.

While the LEARNS Act did not repeal the law that created AMI days, it does require at least 178 days or 1,078 hours of “on-site, in-person instruction” to receive state funding that supports increasing the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000.

Following weeks of public discussion on the issue, the Arkansas Department of Education issued a memo last month that offered guidance on coping with inclement weather days, including seeking a waiver.

Arkansas school districts consider alternate calendar to address inclement weather

Districts are required to notify the Arkansas Department of Education of their calendars by July 1 each year and post the calendars on their websites by Aug. 1.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday waived those requirements for 30 districts who have already received approval from their local boards. The state board also approved waivers for 89 additional districts, pending approval from their local boards.

KIPP Delta Public Schools was the sole open-enrollment public charter school district to seek a waiver.

An alternate calendar permits districts to extend each school day instead of adding make-up days at the end of the school year. The Fayetteville School District, for example, received approval from its board to add 35 minutes to the school day for students in grades 5-12 to make up the seven inclement weather days the district accumulated by the end of January.

Except for school districts with an alternate school calendar, Arkansas law requires districts to adopt an academic calendar that includes five make-up days, in addition to the 178 student-teacher interaction days required by the board’s accreditation standards

They’re typically placed at the end of the year and superintendents expressed concern about losing instructional time prior to spring assessments.

Earlier this month, ADE announced it would extend the state’s summative testing window by a week due to the inclement weather. The new window for reading, math and science is now Apr. 15 to May 24. The writing assessment must still be completed between March 4-15.

Deputy Education Commissioner Stacy Smith said the impact of inclement weather on instruction has become a bigger conversation because districts were able to use AMI days for virtual instruction in recent years.

“We’re taking a stand at this point that that’s not the best instructional method,” Smith said. “We want that in-person time.”

Smith said allowing districts to switch to an alternate calendar provides more flexibility and she’s encouraging districts to think about how to distribute that instructional time.

“How can you be flexible throughout the year in terms of your student time, but making sure that when you have student instructional time, it’s high quality,” Smith said. “We could have 2,000 minimum hours in here, but if it’s poor instructional quality, it wouldn’t matter, right? So it’s about quality.”

Smith noted that the required 178 days or 1,068 hours of instruction are minimums and districts could offer more. Board Chair Sarah Moore said she’s concerned that Arkansas is below the national average of 180 days.

According to the Pew Research Center, the national average is 179 days and Arkansas is one of seven states with minimums of less than 180 days. A dozen states do not specify a minimum. 

Smith said she expects schools calendars to be a “hot topic” during the 2025 legislative session. 

Republican Rep. Julie Mayberry told the Advocate in January she’s considering bringing forth legislation next year that would allow some AMI days to count toward the in-person requirement for state funding to support teacher salary increases.