Back to School in Arkansas: A Primer

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Our education communities have been getting mixed messages from state government in Arkansas: a backdrop of pressure to plow forward, but a hands-off approach on exactly how. Several districts have emerged in recent days with their plans. It seems like a good time to recap some of what we know about return-to-school for Arkansas children and the remaining questions for how to do so while protecting the health of children and teachers alike.

No. 1, as UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson noted on Arkansas Week, Arkansas is in uncharted territory because it is trying to plan a return-to-school during a surge in COVID-19 that shows no signs of abating. Rather, the latest UAMS models project cases worsening in the fall: “No place has opened schools with a rising rate of infection. So no matter what we do, we need to be prepared to be surprised. We need to put as much effort into our plans to shut down schools as we’re putting into opening them back up. Because, inevitably, we will have to shut down school systems once they’ve opened up if outbreaks occur in those school districts.”

No. 2, What do the CDC guidelines advise? Lowest risk: Virtual-only. Highest risk: Back to normal. Somewhere in between? Mitigation efforts like: Desks six feet apart. Cloth face coverings. Closing communal areas like dining rooms and playgrounds. Installing barriers and sneeze guards where helpful. Smaller class sizes. Group stay with same teacher all day. Don’t share objects. Hybrid virtual and in-person class structures. Staggered/rotating schedules to accommodate smaller class sizes. 

No. 3, In Arkansas: Gov. Hutchinson said Thursday the school year will be delayed from Aug. 13 to Aug. 24-26 to give districts time to prepare for the blended learning environment. Education Secretary Johnny Key unveiled red-yellow-green guidelines for what will inevitably be a semester of continuous change dependent on cases in the school and surrounding community. The charge from the state is to get back to school. The onus is on individual districts, working directly with the ADH for guidance. Social distancing, masks, hand hygiene and disinfecting are encouraged, but there is no state mandate for any. Schools don’t have to have their plans approved by the state.

No. 4, Many other counties are ahead of the U.S. in getting back to school. JAMA Network compiled tactics. Among those not already mentioned: self-administered viral tests with overnight results in Germany, modified bus routes to enable social distancing in China, keeping children in place while teachers rotate, closing shared spaces, eating lunch at desks, and more. Again, it’s worth noting that these countries had community cases under control before re-opening schools. 

No. 5, How dangerous is it to have children in school? How likely is the spread? This is unclear. In other countries, dozens of schools in Israel, Japan, and South Korea had to close when cases re-emerged. We’ve seen our own anecdotal cases in and near Arkansas from summer camps where the virus spread. On the other hand, none of the 22 European nations that have re-opened schools saw cases connected to schools. Vanderbilt University is leading a NIH-funded study on children and their role in transmitting COVID-19 among 2,000 families. However, results won’t be ready until year’s end. There is growing evidence that the disease is less likely to spread among children, but we don’t know about schools and the adults who work there. File under: unknown. 

No. 6, The Arkansas Education Association, the main professional organization for educators in the state, on Thursday issued a statement calling the delayed start date “a step in the right direction of acknowledging Arkansas is in no way ready to safely reopen schools. The state’s guidance on outbreaks in our schools in acknowledgement that we are attempting to send students and educators into an unsafe situation. This danger is compounded by the state’s lack of coordinated guidance to districts as they attempt to plan amid constantly changing guidelines that have somehow become politicized.” Rosie Valdez Block, a Little Rock Central High teacher, put it succinctly on CBS This Morning: “While considering things like their social and emotional growth are incredibly important, my students can’t learn if they’re sick and I can’t teach them if I’m dead.”

No. 7, Other factors to consider: race, poverty and access to internet services. Many of our public school systems serve communities of color and communities where a significant portion of the students receive free lunches. These are the same communities that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 and where many adults are in essential jobs with no work-from-home option. Also, not all communities have widespread internet access. This survey by the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education dives in on that issue.

No. 8, Individual districts have already started announcing plans.

Pulaski County Special has three main options: all online, blended, and all-at-school.

Bentonville has announced blended and virtual options:

Little Rock plans to announce Monday.

Send links to arkansascovid@gmail.com to share if your local district has made an announcement.

Meanwhile, several public schools and public charter schools in the state that offer all-online instruction are asking the state to increase caps on enrollment.

 No. 9, Concluding thoughts: Money, leadership and understanding are what are needed in this situation, not political pressure and mixed messages. Again, no one else has tried to open schools during a surge. We’ve previously highlighted the current issues with contract tracing. In an added complication, the time it takes to get a return on a test is expanding to the point of near-uselessness.

This is a beginning of a conversation. We’ll keep a close eye on this issue in the months ahead. As always, we’ll look for data, and you can help lead the discussion. What questions do you have? What are your local districts doing that you want to share with others?

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Rob Wells

Rob Wells, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at the University of Arkansas School of Journalism and Strategic Media.

ABOUT ARKANSAS COVID


The University of Arkansas School of Journalism and Strategic Media operates this site as an independent source of news and as a community service for Arkansas residents. Students produce the content here under the supervision of Rob Wells, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Journalism. The data presented here is collected at roughly the same time each day from the Arkansas Department of Health website.

Questions? Email arkansascovid@gmail.com