The bad news continues to build from the acceleration of the COVID-19 crisis in Arkansas, particularly in the schools.

The state Health Department’s latest statistical report says 138 of Arkansas’s school districts, about half of them, have five or more cases of COVID-19 among staff and students. Many others likely have cases, just fewer than the reporting threshold of five. There are 2,269 active cases in schools statewide and a cumulative total of 10,606 since the pandemic began.

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The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement issued a news release more starkly outlining the situation. It said 88 school districts have had 50 or more new infections per 10,000 district residents over 14 days.

ACHI also found that seven districts had more than 100 new known infections per 10,000 district residents over a 14-day period, or more than 1% of district residents: Armorel, Cedar Ridge, Earle, Manila, Ouachita, Rector, and White County Central. All but Ouachita are in Northeast Arkansas. One district, Cedar Ridge, had a rate of more than 300 new known infections per 10,000 residents, driven by a concentrated outbreak in a congregate setting.

 

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ACHI identifies districts with 50 to 99 new known infections per 10,000 residents as being in the “red zone” and districts with 100 or more new known infections per 10,000 residents as being in the “purple zone.” The map illustrates.

“This huge increase in school districts with high rates of infection among residents is deeply concerning,” said ACHI President and CEO Dr. Joe Thompson. “We must get this virus under control to protect our schools, keep our hospitals from being overrun, and save lives.”

 

Dr. Thompson said these infection rates are especially troubling with Thanksgiving just a week away.

And what is the state doing? Well, not much.

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Only under the duress of COVID outbreaks does it let schools “pivot” to remote instruction. Only yesterday was the Little Rock School District, under the thumb of state Education Secretary Johnny Key, finally allowed to have a four-day in-school week, as many other districts have chosen to do. This allows teachers to prepare on the fifth day for the extra duty of teaching in-person and remotely.

Many have asked the state to pivot statewide to virtual instruction following Thanksgiving given the likelihood that much of Arkansas will continue to refuse to wear masks, refuse to socially distance and refuse to limit the size of gatherings? Is it really smart for hundreds of thousands of kids and workers to gather in school settings after a holiday of flouting safety rules?

School districts were given that answer yesterday in a memo from Ivy Pfeffer, Johnny Key’s top deputy. No.

Her memo said in part, with two sentences highlighted by me:

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Good evening.  I know that all of you are working tirelessly to lead your district through one of the most trying times we’ve ever encountered in education.  I wish all of you a safe and restful holiday, and I am thankful for each of you.  Your jobs are never easy, but they are particularly difficult right now.

I know that many of you are being questioned about the continuation of in-person instruction after the Thanksgiving holiday, and we have been asked to consider a statewide shift to virtual learning between Thanksgiving and the winter break.  We remain steadfast, though, to the commitment that a one-size-fits all approach is not in the best interest of all students.  In a recent survey of teachers, they cited student engagement as the top professional challenge they were encountering this year.  A statewide shift to virtual learning will amplify those concerns.  The lack of devices for students also poses a significant concern when considering a statewide shift to virtual instruction. While there have been great strides by the state and districts to fund and purchase additional devices for students, according to the latest district survey results, 20.1 percent of districts stated they do not have sufficient devices for every student, with an additional 7.3 percent not responding to the question.  For many students, onsite learning, as much as possible, is essential to student success. Many students learn better when they are physically present in the classroom, and for some students, school is the safest place for them and the only place where they can receive a hot meal and in-person support services they need to succeed. Also, as the economy began to reopen earlier this year, many parents were recalled back to work. The closure of schools adds an undue burden on many working families who rely on schools to be open for their children.

Because of proper planning and continuous evaluation of those plans, schools have done an excellent job of quickly identifying positive cases and taking the necessary actions to mitigate the spread of the virus with targeted actions.  We ask that you continue to use the guidance in the Response Levels to Onsite Learning to make decisions, especially when considering district-wide responses to COVID-19.   As outlined in the guidance, districts have considerable latitude in modifying onsite operations to respond to COVID-19.  In the coming weeks, data may require districts to be more restrictive in how onsite operations occur and you may be required to take more aggressive approaches to alter onsite schedules and routines and allow for smaller groupings and limit access in building.  Even at the most aggressive response level, the “Critical Response” allows for the district to provide onsite support for students with small group instruction and limits to the number of students on campus at a given time.  It is also important to recognize that virtual options do not have to be remote learning, meaning that students can be onsite and take part of blended or all-virtual learning opportunities.  We are entering a phase where typical operations may not be possible; however, access to onsite supports can be available.  Districts will be expected to provide access to onsite supports, even at a critical response level, unless otherwise directed by ADH.  Please remember that district-wide closures resulting in remote instruction only are not a default or first-consideration option and must be based on a recommendation from the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH).  DESE will work with districts to set up consults with the ADH.

While we have provided essential guidance in partnership with the ADH, we have left the critical decisions regarding day-to-day operations and procedures to the experts – the local school districts.  A statewide requirement to shift to virtual learning at this time would be counter-productive to student learning and would not align with our practice this school year. While schools must provide a safe learning environment, learning must continue despite the pandemic and with the least number of disruptions possible. We understand that with the increase in positive cases, there is growing concern and we want to support you in making the best decisions at the best time for your district.

I hope that this information will help you in responding to the questions that you have received.  I’ve attached a short presentation that illustrates the Response Levels and considerations that might align with moderate and critical responses.  Please be assured that the ADH will continue to monitor the situation and will assist districts in making necessary decisions if closure to onsite instruction is needed.  The ADE team is available to assist you with your onsite operation questions and support.  We will continue to stay connected.  Take care and keep us updated as needed.

Explanations for two highlighted sentences:

  1. As one school person said to me about the one-size-fits-all comment: “The irony is breathtaking.” One size for all is PRECISELY what the state is saying by dictating in-school classes for all, preferably even for virtual students, even during a near-certain post-holiday outbreak.
  2. Decisions are NOT made at the local level in the state-run Little Rock School District. Not now. Not for the last six years. Not after a neutered school board takes office toward the end of this year.

The governor insists his “strategy” has worked perfectly, COVID rate notwithstanding. Proof? Arkansas went back to work and the tax money is flowing sufficiently to promise another tax cut for millionaires. The governor, flush with federal relief money, has been spending it on tax breaks to businesses and to pay for government infrastructure projects rather than helping beleaguered schools and assorted poor people.

It’s key in the state’s new campaign to lure businesses from other states to Arkansas. Hint to managers: Take the over in your betting pools on how many workers will catch the COVID.