Arkansas’s governor says he remains committed to opening schools in late August as the coronavirus continues to spread in the state.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday an additional 728 Arkansans tested positive for the virus, bringing the state’s total to 34,655. The state’s COVID-19 death toll rose by 11 to 374. Speaking in his daily briefing on the pandemic, Hutchinson said K-12 students will still return to in-class instruction in just over a month.
“I've met with school principals everywhere I go around the state, so I try to stay in tune as to where we are. And there's a very strong commitment that we need school, that we need to go back to school, and I'm glad we made the decision to postpone school for that two-week period to give our school districts more time… to make the adjustments they need to start school on that week of Aug. 24,” Hutchinson said.
The governor’s comments come as the Arkansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement advising against a statewide return to school, recommending county-by-county school openings and requiring students and teachers to wear face masks.
While some counties may have extremely low rates of spread, others have growing numbers of positive cases or consistent positive test rates hovering around 30%, indicating that community spread is uncontrolled and testing is not yet sufficiently reaching all infected people. Additionally, safety policies and resources are not standardized across the state, leading to inequitable protection for children, teachers, and families. These disparities are especially detrimental to Black, Latinx, Marshallese, and other minority and low-income individuals who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in Arkansas. These factors suggest that opening all schools to in-person learning may not be the right choice at this time.
Acting Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero agreed with Hutchinson’s decision on returning to school, saying recommendations and conditions could change before Arkansas students return to class.
“Remember, this is a moving target. COVID does what it wants, and we need to be flexible and adjust to the circumstances as they present over time,” Romero said. “So any recommendations that are made today may not hold true in a week, a month, or two months.”
Education Secretary Johnny Key cited the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District’s reopening plan as a successful example of how schools can safely return to in-class instruction.
“Classes will be on campus, aligned with the traditional school day, and with the technology available to pivot to online learning if warranted by the changing conditions due to COVID,” Key said. “They also have a virtual option for the parents that want to opt for that, but they will have in-person on-site classrooms available for all their students.”
Key said the Little Rock School District, which remains under state control, will open at the same time as other districts despite the Little Rock Education Association teachers’ union’s calls for a phased approach to school reopening.
Pulaski County saw 110 residents test positive for COVID-19, with 62 new cases from Washington County and 46 from Crawford County. The number of Arkansans hospitalized with COVID-19 rose by 17 to its highest-ever point of 488, with 110 patients on a ventilator.
Tuesday’s increase brought the state’s total number of active COVID-19 cases to 6,998, including 921 inmates of correctional facilities and 138 nursing home residents.