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Many Arkansas Teachers Refuse In-Person Classes Amid COVID-19 Concerns

In Little Rock, Ark., more than a hundred teachers didn't show up for class on Monday.

Instead, at least 166 instructors represented by Little Rock Education Association say they are concerned about COVID-19 and only willing to teach remotely. Until the district allows for remote-only instruction or increases school safety, they say they will stay home, according to a union statement.

"Our schools are NOT safe. Someone is going to get sick and someone is going to die if we continue in the current manner," association President Teresa Knapp Gordon said in a statement.

The statement detailed a lack of adherence to COVID-19 safety guidelines and concerns about the rising number of coronavirus cases.

"This is not a strike," Gordon continued. "We are completely and totally willing to work and serve our students virtually in a manner that keeps everyone safe and alive."

The district, however, isn't budging.

Mike Poore, Little Rock School District superintendent, said in a letter that there are "no plans to close schools."

On Monday, a combination of substitutes, district staff and members of the state Department of Education filled-in for the missing teachers.

Poore also told NPR there will be disciplinary action against the no-show teachers, and they may be fired. He says the district has done an excellent job of being as safe as possible in the five weeks it has been open.

He says he thinks the move was meant to be disruptive, as he wasn't notified until Sunday night, leaving the district to scramble to find replacements.

But in a district with 1,850 teachers, it could have been worse, he said.

Overall turnout was about three to four percentage points lower than normal, he said. The district received letters from 69 teachers saying they skipped in support of the union's demand and about 60% of the teachers are represented by the union.

The union plans to push back on any disciplinary action. And if any are terminated, there could be legal action, Gordon said. Teachers are still working from home, only they're teaching their online classrooms instead, she said.

Union complaints

The union claims that schools and classrooms are not being adequately cleaned and that many students and employees are not wearing masks properly.

It also claims that an internal poll indicates that a quarter of the schools are not consistently completing the district's self-reporting surveys. About 37% of the sites report insufficient disinfecting of classrooms, per union members' reports.

Gordon said the No. 1 concern, however, is increasing COVID-19 cases in the district and at a state level.

The district reported 33 new positive student cases and six positive staff cases since Sept. 21. About 190 additional staff members and students were quarantining as a precaution.

There are at least 49 active cases in the district, according to combined data from the district and Arkansas Department of Health.

"I hope the students understand that the reason that we did this was to try and keep them safe, regardless of what anybody saying," Gordon told NPR. "Our students are our highest priority, and we take our job seriously."

Within the district, Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School is temporarily online-only due to COVID-19 cases at the schools. Dunbar Magnet School also temporarily moved online earlier this month.

"Our educators are being tasked with an impossible task, and we need support," Gordon said. "We need people to take this seriously and do something to solve it."

State response

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson condemned the union's stance in a statement.

"With a declining positivity rate in Pulaski County and with the safety measures in place, it is difficult to understand the resistance to teaching in the classroom," he said. "The Little Rock School District should not be deprived of the success that is occurring for our students across the state just because the union objects."

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key echoed the governor's sentiments in his own statement, calling it an "absurd, eleventh-hour scheme to create even more disruption."

"It is wrong, it does not serve students, and I am confident the union's scheming will be soundly rejected by truly student-focused educators," he added.

Reese Oxner is an intern on NPR's News Desk.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.