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Arkansas Superintendent On Opening Schools In Person Amid The COVID-19 Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Back-to-school season is in full swing as more schools begin to open their doors to students, teachers and parents. Though many school districts are still weighing their options, some schools have opted to return back to school completely in person five days a week. And there are already reports of teachers and students being forced to self-quarantine in places like Georgia and Mississippi after they were exposed to COVID-19 just after their first week back.

So how do you open schools safely during a pandemic? We turned to one school district that's committed to opening its doors on August 24. Keith McGee is the interim superintendent for the North Little Rock School District in Little Rock, Ark., and he joins us now.

Welcome.

KEITH MCGEE: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are your plans as of today for your school district?

MCGEE: We have two options. First option is what we call a traditional option. That's the five-day model. We are going to incorporate blended learning in the event that we need to go 100% virtual online. Then a second option that we have is what we call a virtual learning academy. This is where parents and students who right now just don't feel comfortable coming back into the traditional model.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're giving parents essentially two options. How did you arrive at this decision?

MCGEE: We knew that this was a trying time back in March when we were shut down. We knew that we had to be strategic. And after we came up with those option, we decided to create what we call a reopening school task force. The task force is made of doctors and members of Arkansas Department of Health and parents, teachers and building administrators, as well as local legislators and representatives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell me a little bit about your district and why you felt it was important to offer in-school learning?

MCGEE: Our district is a very diverse district. Everyone is not comfortable learning virtually, and some of our students feel a lot better coming in and learning and listening to the teacher and working hand in hand.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I imagine you've been following what's been happening in other school districts. Are you worried about the spread of infection inside the school like we're seeing in other states in the country?

MCGEE: Like all superintendents, I'm sure that we all are wary. But we are confident that we can be able to provide the best environment that will be a safe and secure for those who want to learn on-site.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As things stand now, do you feel like you have the support to safely bring teachers and students back to the classroom? Do you have the money you need and the equipment you need to do that?

MCGEE: Certainly, we would welcome more money and more equipment. And we know that this PPE equipment is going to cost, is very expensive. We are very appreciative of our governor, Asa Hutchinson, who just recently signed an executive order for $20 million CARES Act funding that will go towards our teachers and staff who are infected or affected by COVID-19 while on the job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Superintendent McGee, as you know, it's not only students who are at risk, but teachers and the parents of students who may bring the virus home. This is ultimately life-or-death stuff. I'm wondering how you are personally grappling with having to make a decision that in other countries has been made at a much higher level.

MCGEE: We certainly understand this is life and death in some people, but we're just going to lean and depend and work together with our local state agency and department of health and our governor's office to make sure that in the event that something happened that we're going to be ready to cease on-site and go 100% virtual. We all could want more guidance, but we feeling prepared and ready for our kids to come back to school on the 24.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you have children, sir?

MCGEE: I do. I have a son that's going to be going back as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Keith McGee is the interim superintendent for North Little Rock School District in Little Rock, Ark.

Thank you very much.

MCGEE: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this audio, we incorrectly say the North Little Rock School District is in Little Rock, Ark. It is in nearby North Little Rock.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 13, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this audio, we incorrectly say the North Little Rock School District is in Little Rock, Ark. It is in nearby North Little Rock.