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Weekly Address – July 17, 2020

From the quiet hallways of the most beautiful state Capitol in our nation, this is Senator Keith Ingram.

During the long, hot days of summer, a lot of us don’t think about going back to school. But planning for classes this fall is the hottest topic of the summer if you’re a superintendent, principal, teacher or school board member.

Flexibility will be the operating principle for the upcoming school year. The state Board of Education has adopted a long list of waivers to help schools meet the challenges they will face when the school year begins.

There’s the challenge of seating a class full of students in a classroom. Some districts are thinking about making older students wear masks.

Many schools are thinking of how to re-purpose their existing space, so that students can maintain safe distances from each other.

Teachers are updating their training in the latest methods of on-line learning, because many parents still have concerns about sending their children back to school.

Scheduling of classes has never been a simple process. When you have to coordinate digital classes with actual classes, the task becomes even more complicated.

Some students will be in the classroom all the time, some will study from home all the time, and some students will combine the two. That’s why the state Board waived so many education standards, so that schools have flexibility to meet the challenge.

The difficulties aren’t limited to the classroom. The school cafeteria will undergo many of the same changes we have seen at our favorite restaurants.

Athletics and after-school activities present a special challenge, because so many of them simply cannot be done over a computer.

Educators are working all summer to have a plan in place for the first day of school. Hopefully, we won’t have to change those plans half-way through the school year.

That’s another reason why it’s imperative to follow all the health guidelines, and wear a mask when you are around other people.

If we get complacent about controlling the spread of the coronavirus, the school calendar could be disrupted as much as it was back in March.

This next school year will be difficult for teachers. More than ever they need our support. It’s one thing to say that we’re going to be flexible, but remember it’s the teachers who will be implementing many of the necessary changes.

And of course, it will be a challenging year for our children and their families.

Already, the education experts are warning that the so-called digital divide could get worse. In other words, children from poor families and isolated areas could easily fall through the cracks, because they lack Internet services and computer equipment.

For a lot of kids, the school library is the only place they have access to computers. The local fast food outlet may be the only place they have access to the Internet.

For those kids and their families, the idea of online classes is an impossibility.

Fortunately, we’ve been working for the past several years to bring high speed Internet to rural areas, and to upgrade computer equipment at all of our schools.

The coronavirus should be a wake-up call. It’s time to accelerate all the improvements we’ve been gradually implementing, so that every student in Arkansas has equal access to the technology they need to get an education.

When this pandemic is behind us, I hope we can look at our schools and say that they are better than ever.

From the Capitol, it is always my greatest honor and most sincere privilege to serve you as your state Senator. This is Keith Ingram.

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