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Recent Snow storms highlight confusion over AMI days

Rose Wong for NPR
Many Arkansas school districts are not using Alternative Methods of Instruction on snow days, meaning students will have to make up the days at the end of the year.

In the wake of winter weather, many school districts in Arkansas told students to stay home this week.

In the past, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, districts would fill this time with Alternative Methods of Instruction, or AMI. This could include Zoom classes or other forms of virtual learning.

Last year, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law a package of education legislation known colloquially as Arkansas LEARNS. The law effectively ended AMI for public schools.

“A public-school district shall be open for on-site, in-person instruction for at least: One hundred seventy-eight (178) days; or One thousand sixty-eight (1,068) hours,” the law reads. It explains that funding for teacher salaries can be withheld from districts that do not adhere to the mandatory minimum.

Last year, Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, reached outto Attorney General Tim Griffin's office for clarification on this part of the law. The request listed three questions; Mayberry asked if AMI days were banned outright, if schools can still offer virtual classes and if AMI days count toward the 178 mandated days for each school year.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Kelly Summerside, writing on behalf of Griffin, responded to her questions. She said yes, districts can still offer AMI days if they want to, provided they still have schools open for 178 days. When asked if a school could count AMI days toward the total 178 days, Summerside said it was likely, but that the law still needed clarification.

“Its language suggests that any days or hours during which a school district is not open for 'on-site, in-person instruction' would not count toward this requirement,” the opinion said. Later it said, “legislative clarification is certainly warranted.”

Gov. Sanders' spokesperson Alexa Henning said there is a lot of “misinformation” about AMI days.

“LEARNS did not eliminate AMI days,” she said, arguing that districts can still choose to implement AMI days but that they won't count toward the 178 days mandated by law.

“The data is clear that kids learn better when they are physically in school. It’s vital for kids to be in school and learning,” Henning said.

The Arkansas Department of Education said the exact same thing.

“It’s vital for kids to be in school and learning,” a statement posted to X, formerly Twitter, reads. “As science and our experience in the pandemic have shown, in-person learning is superior to online instruction."

Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said this presents a double standard.

“I could probably argue for or against AMI days,” he said. “My bigger thing is it shouldn't be one set of rules for both public and private schools.”

Under Arkansas LEARNS, some private schools get public funding but don't have to follow the same district rules.

“LEARNS didn't do away with AMI days, but LEARNS did poison the well,” Leding added.

Alexa Henning said this is because private schools are not given money to help their teachers get salary raises.

Schools have to make up inclement weather days at the end of the year, though some districts build a few days into their schedule to account for this. For example, the Little Rock School District has built in six inclement weather days at the end of the current school year's calendar. This is according to Pamela Smith, communications director for the LRSD.

With a week's worth of snow days so far this year, many school districts will likely continue classes into June.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.