Arkansas teachers and students are beginning the most challenging school year in living memory.

Last March schools were forced to close because of the spread of the coronavirus, a decision that affected more than 470,000 students and 33,000 teachers.

Arkansas has been trying to close the achievement gap between children in underprivileged homes and those in more prosperous families.

Elected officials and educators are concerned that the changes made necessary by the virus could make that gap wider. When so many students must study from home and take their classes online, it’s critical that they all have access to the same technology.

That’s why state officials have beefed up the Arkansas Rural Connect program, which has distributed more than $10 million in grants to expand broadband access in isolated areas. More grants will be announced over the coming weeks.

Other grants of up to $75,000 help rural communities apply for federal dollars to expand broadband access, through the Rural Broadband I.D. Expenses Trust Fund Grant. It is managed by the Institute for Digital Health & Innovation at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Also important will be the presence of a parent or family member who is computer literate, who can help students connect with their teachers every day.

According to surveys, when schools had to convert to distance learning last spring, the amount of time that students spent in virtual classrooms was significantly less than when those students physically attended school.

Virtual classrooms last spring focused on reviewing subjects already introduced earlier in the year. This year the challenge will be introducing new material electronically.

The disruption of standardized testing in the spring will have an effect because teachers won’t begin the school year with a clear picture of each student’s individual academic level. This is particularly important this year, when students will experience the so-called “summer slide” to a greater degree because they have spent more time away from school.

In many communities, going to virtual learning will bring attention to how many social services, apart from academics, are provided in schools. Those services include after school programs, meals, mental health counseling and health care.

Educators and elected officials expect an outbreak before the school year is over, either among students or staff. When that happens, they will have to make quick decisions about how to respond. For example, they may have to decide whether or not to close a school temporarily, and if so for how long. State health officials will provide input.

The state Board of Education has waived numerous standards so that local schools have the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.

The legislature has always prioritized public education, which accounts for almost half of the money spent from the general revenue fund. Legislators are updating the formula to make sure that state aid to local schools is adequate, in preparation for the regular session that begins in January.

Safety precautions necessitated by the coronavirus will greatly affect the meetings of the Senate and House Education Committees during the 2021 legislation session. The committee’s meetings are almost always filled to capacity, with people in attendance overflowing into the hallways.

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