BELLA VISTA -- After the school year ended with weeks of online learning, parents, teachers and administrators are trying to plan for next year in spite of uncertainty about the coronavirus.
The Bentonville School District, which includes Cooper Elementary School in Bella Vista, put a 12 person "Reopening Task Force" in place that includes professionals from medicine, school administration and law enforcement.
The district's director of communications, Leslee Wright, confirmed parents have choices for the next school year and those choices should be made soon.
"We have to plan for staffing," she said.
The district website, www.bentonvillek12.org/Page/24478, has information about the two choices which are labeled "Virtual School" and "Blended School."
Virtual School takes place online in the student's home. Students use a school-provided laptop, but households must have an Internet connection and some testing at the school may be required. Students enrolled in virtual school will be divided into "classes" with a teacher assigned to each class.
Blended School is face-to-face instruction at the school, but teachers will use a digital format allowing for "rapid transition to virtual learning if needed."
Once a family makes its choice, it's locked in for one semester. It can change from blended to virtual or vice versa at the semester break.
The schools will look a little different for students who opt for face-to-face classes. Desks will be arranged for maximum space between students. Water fountains will be out of service, but touchless bottle fillers will be available. Students will be asked to bring their own water bottles every day. Halls may be designated one way and bathroom breaks may be scheduled to avoid crowding.
Parents will no longer be allowed to eat lunch with their children in the school cafeteria or walk them to their classroom. Parent/teacher conferences will be online.
The most recent information on the website says masks are "strongly recommended" for students in fourth grade and up. The district follows the guidelines issued by the Arkansas Department of Health and the mask guidelines changed recently.
In Bella Vista, many parents are planning to send their children to school in spite of the risk. Julie Hull, the mother of two high school students, said online learning didn't work well for one of her sons who's taking Advanced Placement classes.
AP teachers tend to assign a lot of work and students working at home can't keep up. The teachers aren't always available when the students need them and, since the classes are advanced, parents really can't help.
She may not send them to school on the bus though. School buses are just too crowded, she said, and her sons are old enough to drive themselves.
Tonja Suesy was at the Kingsdale Pool complex with her grandchildren. She said parents should make the decision based on what safeguards the school puts in place. She wants to know if they can keep masks on kids and ensure they wash their hands.
Several parents said no matter what they decide now, they expect schools to shut down again if covid-19 cases go up.
Parent Nick Faber said since his son's birthday is very close to the cutoff date to start kindergarten, they have decided to keep him home for another year. He added a kindergartner starting school with all the teachers wearing masks and no parents allowed inside might be very scary for a five-year-old and that fear would impact his entire education.
"They want to go back to school," Regina Reed said about her grandchildren. "They will get more out of school if they are going back."
Shannon Davis said the district shouldn't expect parents to make a decision this early, especially with the numbers of covid-19 cases increasing.
She's also concerned teachers will spend all their time trying to enforce the social distancing guidelines and won't have time to teach. Young students, she said, just don't understand the 6-foot rule unless they have a tape measure at all times.
Virtual school worked out well for her fourth grader last year and her family is able to have someone home with her children, so she has flexibility.
"We are able to make that decision either way. If we weren't, I would be exponentially more stressed."