DR. JOSE ROMERO (file photo) Brian Chilson

In a survey conducted this week by the Arkansas Department of Education, only 30 percent of Arkansas school districts reported that they had adequate personal protective equipment to complete the first semester of in-person instruction. Fifty-four districts, or 21 percent, said definitively that they did not have enough; and 110 districts, or 42 percent, said they weren’t sure.

Many districts also reported that they either did not or weren’t sure if they would have enough PPE to even begin in-person instruction the week of Aug. 24:

Adequate masks: No (29 districts, or 11 percent); not sure (43 districts, or 16 percent)
Adequate gloves: No (43 districts, or 16 percent); not sure (44 districts, or 17 percent)
Adequate hand sanitizer: No (27 districts, or 10 percent); not sure (48 districts, or 18 percent)

As of July 31, 13 of the 263 districts in the state had yet to complete the survey.

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“This also is a living document, so it’s ever-changing,” Kimberly Mundell, spokeswoman for the education department, said. “We are following up with districts that haven’t completed the survey. Our plan is to publish more complete results sometime next week. Also, results will be updated as superintendents get supplies, finalize their communication resources, etc.”

Education Secretary Johnny Key announced July 27 that the education department would spend $1 million to purchase a strategic stockpile of personal protective equipment to help districts who lack an adequate supply.

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Dr. Jose Romero, interim secretary of health, fielded questions from superintendents July 30 in a discussion organized by the Arkansas Association of Education Association. Only the last 40 minutes of the discussion was captured.

Mike Hernandez, executive director of the AAEA, echoed the education survey results, saying that many superintendents lacked sufficient PPE. What’s the level of concern from the health department? he asked.

Romero said, “If you can’t wash your hands or slime your hands [with alcohol gel] and you don’t have masks, that’s a problem.” He said he would look into the PPE supply issue.

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Jon Collins, superintendent of the West Memphis School District, asked Romero, “What’s the science behind the assumption that we can start school without creating a huge increase in cases?”

“You’ve asked a very good question,” Romero said. “We don’t have the science because we’ve never tried this before. The theory is that if we maintain good contact precautions, that is the masking, the social distancing, the hand washing, we may be able to go forward with in-class education. But you are correct, we haven’t proven this. And we can have an increase in the number of cases. … We don’t know. We think it’s possible, and I think it’s worth trying.”

Collins and other superintendents expressed concern about staff and students or their family members who contract COVID-19 away from school. Will the health department notify school districts of those positive cases? Not necessarily, Romero said.

Jody Wiggins, superintendent of the Siloam Springs School District, noted that there were incentives for members of the school community not to self-report.

“If we are relying on them to self-report to us, we are going to have situations where they come back to school after they’ve tested positive because, either they don’t want to be docked pay if they’re an employee, or they have no ability to take care of their child at home, and they’re going to send their child to school. If we don’t know that they’re positive and they’re back with us, that creates a problem for all of us.”

Romero said that if an employee contracts the disease and the degree to which the employee has exposed others at a school meets a certain criteria, a contact tracer would be in touch with the school. He acknowledged that it would be problematic if a parent or someone else becomes infected and spends time at the school without disclosing their infection, but he said contact tracing should eventually make that link.

Collins noted the delays the state is seeing in contact tracing and suggested that delays of 3-5 days could result in exponential exposure that would lead to classroom and school closure.

Romero reminded the superintendents that the health department’s guidance is that anyone who gets tested go into quarantine. “They should not be going back into your environment,” he said. But does everyone follow health department guidance? Anecdotal evidence suggests no.

Wiggins asked if it would be up to superintendents or the health department to determine when it’s appropriate to close schools or classrooms. Romero said it would ultimately be the health department’s call, but he said it would be done in consultation with districts. “We’ll come up with a plan,” Romero said. “It may be possible to have a set of benchmarks in place to determine when it’s best to close down a class or a school without having to reach out to us for every time.”

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Romero acknowledged that it’s frustrating for superintendents and school communities to hear that there’s not yet a clear plan.

“The reason why we hedge is that this is an unknown,” he said “… I don’t want to give you an answer today that I have to retract in the next week. It’s better for me to say we don’t know.” 

What about the possibility of pushing back the start date of in-person school? Governor Hutchinson announced in July that the start date would be pushed back two weeks to give schools more time to prepare.

“I think that if necessary the date will be pushed back even more,” Romero said. “At this point, we have an extra two weeks. We’re using that time to see what’s going on around us, those states that have moved forward [with reopening schools]. We’re looking at epi curves. If everything blows up, it may make it less likely that we can start school in person on a given date. It’s a fluid situation.”

Learning

The education department survey also asked districts about learning plans and technology needs. Seventy percent of districts surveyed said that students do not have the required access to the internet at home for online learning. And 20 percent of districts said they would not have sufficient devices to start school on time.

The majority of districts, 237, indicated that they would offer virtual education to students. Sixty-one, or 23 percent, said they would offer a hybrid or split schedule. Seventy-five districts, or 29 percent, reported that more than 20 percent of their students had selected an option that wasn’t full-time onsite instruction.