In July, Kristin Addison-Brown walked by the school supply aisle in Walmart in Jonesboro and had to fight back tears. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, her son, Isaac Brown, will stay at home at least for the first semester of the school year and enter fourth grade in the Jonesboro Public Schools Virtual Academy. “I love the smell of the pencils, crayons, the paper and all that,” Addison-Brown said. “It was a stark reminder of what we’re doing.”
Governor Hutchinson has decreed that public school in Arkansas for some 480,000 students and 70,000 teachers and other staff will begin the week of Aug. 24. But even at this late date, what school amid COVID-19 will look like remains sketchy and fraught. Many parents with health and safety concerns, like the Browns in Jonesboro, will keep their children at home to receive remote, online learning. Others, whose jobs don’t allow them the flexibility to work remotely and oversee school work, will send their kids back to school in masks to teachers who will spend much of their day keeping students as far apart from one another as possible.
Health and policy experts generally make the same case to reopen schools: Kids learn better in person, and further time outside of the classroom will widen the equity gap. Many children rely on school for breakfast and lunch; 60 percent of Arkansas students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Research shows that school is essential to children’s social and emotional development. School employees are also mandated reporters of abuse and neglect and, from March until June with school and many summer programs closed, there were nearly 40 percent fewer calls to Arkansas’s child maltreatment hotline than the same period last year. More broadly, without in-person school, parents can’t effectively return to work, and the economy will suffer.
But public health officials have also said that schools should reopen only when COVID-19 cases are declining. In Arkansas, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been spiking through the summer, and the state lacks the rapid testing and contact tracing resources that would help contain the growth of the virus.
Governor Hutchinson has dismissed concerns about the safety of reopening schools, arguing that the public benefit of in-person instruction outweighs health risks. But teachers argue that schools, many with poor ventilation and insufficient space to keep kids socially distant, are especially ill-prepared to mitigate spread of the coronavirus, and many say they fear for their lives.
“I have not hugged my parents, been in someone else’s home, gotten a haircut, gone to a restaurant, in months to stay safe,” one Little Rock teacher said in an email. “Now in less than a month, I’m supposed to forget all the safety as numbers of cases are higher than ever because I’m responsible for education, childcare and the economy. This cannot fall on public education.”
Kristin Addison-Brown and her husband, Brandon Brown, reluctantly decided to keep Isaac home after seeing the plan for reopening from the Jonesboro Public School District. In the district’s initial outreach to parents, released before the governor issued a statewide mask mandate, there was no requirement for students or teachers to wear masks and little detail on how COVID-19 cases would be handled.
“We looked at the plan for school, and we weren’t very reassured,” Addison-Brown said. “I feel for the school administrators having to deal with this right now. I don’t know that they’re getting a lot of support from the state and federal government with key decisions they’re having to make. They’re between a rock and a hard place.”
Isaac’s parents didn’t come to the decision easily. Isaac, 9, has been attending the International Studies Magnet School, and the district’s policy is that students who enroll in virtual school won’t be guaranteed a spot in a magnet school in the future, but will be given preference. Addison-Brown said the family loves the school and fears the possibility of further disruption to Isaac’s friendships if he isn’t able to return. She’s a neuropsychologist who owns her own practice, and her husband has been working from home remotely. They plan to split days supervising Isaac, their only child.
Addison-Brown said she wasn’t worried about Isaac falling behind academically. “I understand we’re fortunate in that regard,” she said. “From the social, behavioral perspective, I’m a little more concerned. We really struggled with AMI [alternative methods of instruction, the spring version of remote school]. He kind of hated it. He does well with social feedback, praise from his teachers. He’s very sociable and really misses his friends.”
“I’d rather be in in-person school,” Isaac said. “I get to see my friends. I get to do recess and play soccer with a lot of other kids. At home, I don’t get to see other kids.” He said he’s worried about the coronavirus. “It’s killed a lot of people. It’s really high in Arkansas.” He believes scientists will develop a vaccine, but thinks it might be a while.
For Isaac and his parents, the disease isn’t abstract. His great-grandmother died of COVID-19 in a nursing home. Isaac’s father had to quarantine at home after potential exposure, an isolation cut short by the devastating tornado that hit Jonesboro in late March. The family was spared in each case: Brandon Brown did not get the disease, and the tornado spared their home. Ultimately, concern for Isaac’s grandparents pushed the Browns to keep Isaac at home. Addison-Brown’s parents live next door, interact regularly with the Browns and are in their 80s. “We didn’t want him going to school and bringing [COVID-19] here,” Addison-Brown said. “My dad was like, ‘Well, we could [die] tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Yes that’s true,’ but A) COVID is not the way to go and B) just the potential guilt that I think [Isaac] would feel and I would feel.”
In Little Rock, Adyson Shelton plans to return to Pulaski Heights Middle School for her eighth-grade year. Adyson, 13, wants to be someone who “contributes to world peace” somehow when she grows up. Or maybe a psychologist. She said the coronavirus pandemic weighed heavily on her mind in the spring, but she’s tried not thinking about it as much lately to avoid stress. Still, she’s being cautious and rarely leaving the house. She worries that her classmates won’t all take safety precautions when school resumes. “I know that some people aren’t going to take it seriously enough,” Adyson said. “There are going to be kids who are going to play too much.” Most of all, she worries about the people who have asymptomatic COVID-19 infections and unwittingly come to school.
But she’s also worried about her academic future. In the spring, when Hutchinson shuttered school campuses, the Little Rock School District moved to AMI and learning management systems with stock lessons. Adyson thought it was horrible and far from the in-classroom experience. She’s most excited this year about returning to school to take courses that will count toward high school credit: algebra, French II and physical science. She’s looking forward to seeing her friends, but knows that they’ll have to remain physically apart. She also knows there’s likely to be disruption. With cases of COVID-19 expected to peak in Arkansas in the fall, she thinks it’s unlikely she’ll remain in the classroom all school year.
Medical data suggests that children are less susceptible to COVID-19 and less likely to require hospitalization. That’s not the case for Arkansas’s public school educators, who face their own impossible options: They can return to school and face the health risks, they can take leave (if available) or they can quit. In a July survey of more than 6,000 Arkansas educators by the Arkansas Education Association, 90 percent said they were concerned about the health risks to students in reopening campuses, and 88 percent said they were concerned about the risks to their own families. Almost 50 percent, 2,900 teachers and support staff, said they were leaving their jobs or considering retiring or leaving the profession early because of the pandemic.
The stress is particularly acute among teachers with health concerns about themselves and their own children. Leann is a teacher in the LRSD with an elementary school-aged daughter who was diagnosed several years ago with Kawasaki disease, a rare inflammatory condition. (All the teachers interviewed for this article asked that their real names not be published out of fear of retribution. Most teacher contracts prohibit educators from talking to the media without permission from the school administration. All names are pseudonyms.) Her daughter spent a week in Arkansas Children’s Hospital with the disease. She was so swollen with a rash she couldn’t walk and had a fever so high that she appeared “lifeless.” Medical research has shown that a small percentage of children infected by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, have contracted a similar, multi-inflammatory disease. Leann said she still has “a bit of PTSD” from watching her child suffer and is “terrified to think she could catch [COVID] and suffer through that again.” But, she has no option other than to send her daughter back to school. Leann’s father suffers from cardiovascular problems and her mother is at high risk because of her age, so she can’t call on them for help.
Susan, a teacher in Fort Smith, has six children, including one with Crohn’s disease and two adopted from foster care with fetal alcohol syndrome. She and her husband can’t afford their mortgage unless she continues teaching, but she’s “terrified of what it’ll do to my kids if I bring it home to them.” She and her husband have taken out a loan to convert a shed in their backyard into living quarters so she can quarantine there once school resumes.
Ophelia, an elementary school teacher in El Dorado, said she feels “gaslit” in her community when she hears from people who rail against masks and post pictures of vacations in Florida on social media that it’s safe to return to school and that her fears are unfounded. A mother to a toddler, she’s worried about putting her child back in daycare and about the potential that she’ll bring the virus home to her family. “It really just comes down to data for me. There isn’t enough for me to feel comfortable,” she said.
Pam, a teacher in a small Central Arkansas district, is a single mother of a middle school student. She’s worried not only about her daughter falling behind, but also about what would happen to the child if Pam were to contract COVID-19 and die.
“By opening schools in person this August, we are knowingly and willingly subjecting our educators, food service workers, custodial workers, paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, nurses, etc. to certain exposure to the virus,” she wrote in an email. “There is no question of whether it will be safe or not. We all know that it is a death march. My school has about 30 teachers. Out of those, at least 75 percent are either in the upper age bracket, have underlying health issues, or are the caregivers of others with health issues. We know for a fact that when those people are exposed, we will lose many of them. You cannot tell me that it is better psychologically for kids to see their teachers in person dropping like flies than it would be to spend (with perspective) a short amount of time with us virtually.”
Despite a rising number of COVID-19 cases in Arkansas, Hutchinson and state Education Secretary Johnny Key have repeatedly said schools should reopen to in-person instruction in August, echoing a case that’s been made more pointedly by President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who have threatened to withhold federal funding from schools around the country that don’t reopen their doors.
Trump and other administration officials have said that the guidance on schools reopening from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is too restrictive and expensive. Among other things, the CDC says students’ desks should be placed 6 feet apart and schools in communities where there is “substantial transmission” should not reopen. Arkansas leaders and the Trump administration have also ignored the White House’s Opening Up America Again guidelines, which say that states shouldn’t proceed with phased reopenings, including restarting in-person school, without a downward trajectory of documented cases or positivity rate over a 14-day period. Governor Hutchinson has described both the White House and CDC guidelines as informing state decision-making, but he’s said the state will craft its policies “based on the uniqueness of our circumstances” in Arkansas.
In spring, Hutchinson cited public health guidance in shutting Arkansas schools. He initially closed them in mid-March, describing the move as temporary, but on April 6, he announced that campuses would remain shut through the end of the school year. On April 6, there were 1,000 positive COVID-19 cases in the state, 800 of which were considered active. As of July 23, Arkansas had seen 36,259 positive cases, 7,009 of which were considered active.
Like the Trump administration, Hutchinson and other Arkansas leaders haven’t offered a plan to safely reopen schools. In the U.S., school districts are politically autonomous for the most part, and many large school districts in communities with serious COVID-19 outbreaks, including ones in Atlanta, Dallas and Nashville, have opted to begin the school year online-only. In Arkansas, the state Department of Education has left most of the decisions on how to reopen schools in the 2020-21 school year to local districts — aside from the most crucial one: The state has said that all schools must reopen to in-person instruction.
Dr. Gary Wheeler is the president of the Arkansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a part-time senior adviser at the state health department. Speaking on July 10, he said Arkansas pediatricians would be “very, very concerned if we were supposed to open schools tomorrow.” But, he said, “We know that there are ways to make the school environment relatively healthy and safe.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine have urged states to make reopening school campuses a priority. The pediatricians group’s initial guidance in late June said “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” It called for all students to wear masks, for desks to be spaced 3-6 feet apart, for students’ movement between classrooms to be limited, and for outdoor classrooms to be used.
As President Trump, eager to deliver a jolt to the economy to bolster his dwindling re-election bid, began aggressively pushing for schools to reopen in July, he and others in his administration repeatedly cited the statement from the pediatricians as support for in-person school. Governor Hutchinson did the same on July 9 before he announced that he was pushing back the start date of the school year from Aug. 13 to Aug. 24-26 to give schools more time to prepare. Neither Trump nor Hutchinson have publicly embraced the specific guidelines in the document from pediatricians.
In likely response to the political appropriation of the guidance, the pediatricians group, along with national teachers unions, issued a second statement July 10, emphasizing safety and the important role science should play in decisions about reopening schools. On July 21, the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement saying it didn’t support a statewide return to school in August and advocated for county-level considerations of infection rates in determining when schools should reopen.
Medical literature suggests that children who contract COVID-19 are less likely than adults to become seriously ill or transmit the disease. “In addition to the national data that we’ve seen, the data in Arkansas support that the complications and morbidity from COVID-19 are very limited in children up to the age of 18,” Wheeler said. In Arkansas as of July 21, 4,123 children ages 0-17 have tested positive for COVID-19, 47 have been hospitalized and none have died.
Requiring masks is the No. 1 thing that should be done to make school safe, Wheeler said. The initial guidance to school districts from the state education department left decisions on whether to require school employees and students to wear face coverings to districts. But after the state developed its back-to-school playbook for schools, Hutchinson issued a statewide mask mandate, which went into effect July 20. It applies only to those 10 and older. Before that order, school leaders in many districts had already announced that all children and all employees would be required to wear face coverings when they can’t maintain a distance of 6 feet from one another. The four largest school districts in the state, Springdale, Little Rock, Rogers and Bentonville, will require everyone to wear face coverings.
(Little Rock, now in its sixth year under state control, bumbled the mask question, initially releasing in early July a frequently asked questions document to teachers that read, “When feasible, older children should wear face coverings within facilities. It is not required for children to wear a mask. Let the parent determine!” After the district received sharp criticism from the public, Superintendent Mike Poore apologized, said the language had been mistakenly borrowed from a state document, and when the LRSD released its official plan, it said face coverings were required.)
Wheeler said another important safety measure is keeping kids spaced appropriately, which will require limiting the number of children in a classroom, a goal that can be accomplished through using spaces like auditoriums that aren’t usually used for classrooms, or by shifting schedules so that children come to school at different times. Ventilation is another important consideration, Wheeler said. “If you can dilute the air, you can dilute the chance of acquiring the virus.” Many schools have put special emphasis on sanitizing protocols, but Wheeler said it was much more important to get kids in the habit of frequently washing their hands with soapy water or using alcohol gel.
Wheeler conceded that the steps needed to make school safe for educators and students — purchasing adequate personal protective equipment, making adjustments to school physical plants — will be expensive. “This is an immediate, time-sensitive issue,” he said. Policymakers in Arkansas need to make whatever funds are necessary available to school districts, he said.
But there’s no evidence the state is taking the necessary steps to ensure school is safe, said Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a grassroots group that advocates for social and economic justice. Requiring school districts to reopen, but leaving them to figure out how to do that safely, is a dereliction of duty by state leaders, he said.
“At the end of the day, an adequate and equitable education is in our [state] constitution,” Kopsky said. “It is the state’s responsibility. It’s not the local school districts’ job; it’s the state’s job. For the state to issue this delegating authority down to local districts that don’t have the resources to meet the needs and don’t have the expertise in public health to meet the needs, it’s an abdication of [the state’s] legal, and I would argue, moral responsibility.”
The Public Policy Panel has called for Arkansas to delay the start of school this year until every district can meet the recommendations from the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics and the state can ensure that every student has access to “a quality virtual learning opportunity.”
“School is essential,” Kopsky said. “You pay a heavy cost in not having school. The fact that we can’t have school in a safe way is devastating. It falls squarely at the feet of the governor and the federal government.”
Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, said teachers across the state are worried about safety and feel like their voices are being ignored.
“The main concern we’re hearing [from teachers] is that there’s no specific guidance from the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education on baseline safety requirements,” Fleming said. “Because of that we have a patchwork of local decisions that are not including the perspectives of teachers and parents.
“Our position on that is that when schools reopen that should be dependent on advice from medical experts, but how we reopen should be based on the advice of educators. There has to be a statewide vision for basic health and safety for students and educators.”
The Little Rock Education Association, the largest local affiliate of the AEA, has called for school to begin online-only until cases begin to decline.
Beyond safety, teachers are also worried about the potential impact of blanket waivers to state education law and rules approved by the State Board of Education in June. The waivers cover instructional duty and requirements that schools share proposed policy changes with personnel policy committees, made up of teachers and other staff. Fleming said teachers are especially concerned that, because of the waivers, they’ll be the ones charged with cleaning and disinfecting their rooms regularly.
Aside from the most basic question of whether returning to school at all is safe, teachers and parents have long lists of additional questions. How will schools deal with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, for example? Many of the specifics have been left up to the health department to deal with as situations develop, but the basic response will be similar to how the department deals with occupational outbreaks:
In the event of a positive case, all those who have had close contact, defined by the health department as being within 6 feet from an infected person for 15 cumulative minutes in a day, will be required to quarantine for 14 days. But health officials have declined to engage in specific hypotheticals about what circumstances would require a school to be closed, though they have suggested that a single COVID-19 positive won’t necessarily lead to a school being shuttered. The education department, in coordination with the health department, released a stoplight, color-coded framework for responding to outbreaks, ranging from a green “limited response” to “minimal spread,” which would require only limited or no closure of a school building, to a red-colored “critical response” to “substantial spread,” which would require buildings or districts to shut and move all students to remote, online learning. The state hasn’t quantified what “minimal” and “substantial” mean.
The Department of Health has said it will manage contact tracing in schools with assistance from a point of contact in a school, typically a school nurse. But the health department has been chronically behind on contact tracing through the summer, and a backlog at commercial labs has led to delays in providing test results, which makes contact tracing less useful. This worries Wheeler. “Speaking as an Academy of American Pediatricians member, I’m concerned about whether the health department has the capacity to absorb the counsel and questions and other things that are going to be demanded of it [by schools.]”
How will schools keep children separated? For on-site instruction, schools across the state are approaching a return to campuses in a variety of ways. Little Rock eSTEM public charter schools, the largest charter system in the state, and Fayetteville Public Schools each plan to offer in-person instruction only two days a week to allow for sufficient social distancing within classrooms (eSTEM will provide a third day of on-site instruction to half of its students each nine weeks). Hutchinson was critical of the two-day-a-week move in Fayetteville, saying July 16 that the district had “gotten off track” of what he expected of schools.
Most other districts plan to hold school every weekday, but how or if they’ll manage to keep children spaced safely remains a work in progress.
The LRSD began surveying parents in June on whether they planned to send their kids back to school or stick with remote learning. As of July 15, Superintendent Poore said the parents of about 11,000 of the 24,000 students in the district had responded to the survey. The parents of 55 percent of students have said they want their children to return to school; the parents of the other 45 percent want them to study remotely. The LRSD is allowing parents to alter their decision and is hoping to get responses from the families of another 9,000 students by Aug. 1.
Poore said he anticipated that Little Rock schools will rearrange classrooms and adapt underutilized space, but to what extent will depend on how many kids return to each school building. Poore conceded that the district likely won’t be able to achieve “perfect spacing all the time.” He said that was part of the reason the LRSD decided to require that everyone in every school building wear a mask.
Will educators have sufficient personal protective equipment? Money should not be an obstacle. The state education department received $128.75 million through the federal CARES Act for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund and then allocated those dollars to school districts based on how much Title I federal funding they receive. Title I dollars go to schools with high percentages of children in low-income families. Fleming, the president of the Arkansas Education Association, said she’d heard from educators who had been asked by schools to pick up supplies when they see them in stores because of supply chain delays.
The LRSD will have sufficient supply, Poore said. The district received an ESSER allotment of $6.6 million, the largest in the state (federal rules require districts to make a portion of that money available to private schools; as of July 14, Little Rock private schools had taken $732,000). The LRSD has purchased 3 million three-ply face masks, 3,400 face shields and thousands of bottles and refills of hand sanitizer.
The state is requiring schools to develop a “blended learning” plan, which mixes online education with in-person instruction, so districts are prepared to pivot to remote learning if needed. Schools don’t have to offer students an online-only tract, but most districts will. Using CARES Act funds, the education department awarded a $2.4 million grant to the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, a nonprofit group funded heavily by the Walton family that advocates on behalf of charter schools and rural school districts. With the grant funding, APSRC in turn contracted with Lincoln Learning Solutions, a Pennsylvania-based online learning provider, and is making it available to Arkansas school districts at no cost. The package includes a learning management system, a web application that functions like a digital classroom. The app lets teachers communicate with students, upload lessons and take attendance. Lincoln Learning also provides curriculum, including text, videos and games. In a survey conducted by the state education department, 133 districts out of the total of 263 indicated they planned to use the Lincoln Learning content.
The education department also provides $3.8 million in annual grant funding to Virtual Arkansas, a state virtual school that provides courses to students, especially in rural districts, that aren’t offered in their schools. A total of 217 school districts and nine charter schools use Virtual Arkansas annually, education department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said. In the education department survey, 176 districts said they plan to use it for digital learning this year (districts can use multiple providers).
When Isaac Brown begins school remotely in the Jonesboro Public School Virtual Academy, he’ll receive instruction from teachers employed by the Jonesboro district or a Jonesboro “partner.” The Jonesboro district is using Lincoln Learning along with other providers. In the LRSD, all online instruction will come from Little Rock teachers through the Schoology learning management system. Poore has promised that, unlike the learning management systems the district used in the spring, itslearning and Edmentum, Schoology will allow teachers more flexibility in how they deliver instruction.
The Arkansas Public Policy’s Kopsky said he has “giant questions about the quality of online learning platforms. They didn’t perform well in the spring. They’ve frankly never performed well. All indicators are that they widen out equity gaps, and they’re even less effective for kids who have other barriers to learning, whether they be poverty, internet access or other factors.”
Barriers to internet access remain a problem in Arkansas. After the lack of infrastructure was laid bare in the spring when schools were shut down, state leaders pledged to address the problem this fall. But it’s hard to develop infrastructure in a matter of months. The Springdale School District, the state’s largest, reported to the education department over the summer that 40 percent of its students have no access to internet. Another 30 percent only have internet speeds ranging from 2-10 Megabits per second. The FCC says students need between 5-25 Mbps — and notes that broadband needs to increase the more devices in use at a time.
Rich Huddleston, executive director of the nonprofit Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said his group is paying close attention to how the state and local districts spend the millions in federal aid they have received. Priority should be given to programs that help low-income students and students of color, Huddleston said. The state has long struggled to close the achievement gap, he said, and hasn’t sufficiently invested in quality pre-K education, special education, summer or afterschool programs.
As if the immediate future weren’t bleak enough, Huddleston worries that, amid the pandemic, not enough attention is going to the education adequacy study, commissioned by the state legislature, underway this year. It’s the first of its kind in more than a decade, and will help determine how K-12 education is funded for years to come. Another worry, according to Huddleston and other advocates, is the potential for groups in the state to use the pandemic as an opening to further undermine traditional public education.
But in crisis, there’s also the potential for positive change, Kopsky said.
“The upside of this is there’s an opportunity to reimagine what you want from a school,” he said. “If we find the equity gaps we think we’re going to find, we can get creative about fixing them. The COVID crisis has brought equity into focus more than it has been for a while. Maybe we can use this as a pivot point for truly addressing equity rather than skirting around the issues.”