As the number of COVID-19 cases in Arkansas continues to increase, officials announced Monday that schools in the state will remain closed for onsite instruction through the end of the school year.
Alternative forms of education will continue in the coming weeks online and through Arkansas PBS, said Education Secretary Johnny Key. Speaking to reporters at the state Capitol, he urged educators not to attempt to "replicate the classroom experience," and to be flexible with time limits for assignments.
"We expect the focus to be on core content, math, literacy, science and social studies, and then coordinate the use of other subjects, such as art, music and [physical education] in conjunction with the core subjects," Key said. "We do urge caution with respect to introducing new content, as this will likely have limited effectiveness in our current circumstances."
He said the department will have enough content for Alternate Methods of Instruction, or AMI, to last school districts until May 1. Districts will then be responsible for planning lessons until the end of the academic year.
High school seniors in good standing will be allowed graduate, Key said, but must continue meeting standards established by their local school districts. Any graduation ceremonies must abide by guidelines set by the state Department of Health.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson had said three weeks ago that schools would be closed through April 17. With the virus continuing to spread, he said Monday that it was necessary to keep facilities closed, though acknowledged it would present hardship for parents, students and teachers.
The governor said during the press briefing that the number of positive cases had risen to 875, which was an increase of 45 since Sunday. No new deaths have been reported, he said, with the number of fatalities remaining at 16. 74 people are hospitalized, seven more than on Sunday.
Hutchinson was again questioned about his refusal to issue a shelter-in-place order. He maintained that exercising social distancing and limiting people to groups of 10 or less was having a "significant impact" and encouraged people to continue doing that. Hutchinson pointed to graph showing the number of infections was below what had been forecast.
"There’s probably 20 different projections out there for Arkansas… the University of Washington will give a model for Arkansas, but it changes day by day," Hutchinson said. "It’s a changing environment out there, which just reflects we actually don’t know completely how this develops."
Hutchinson also said the state will send five ventilators from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to Louisiana, which has the fourth-highest number of cases among states in the U.S.
Arkansas Department of Health Secretary Nate Smith was asked about President Trump’s suggestion that the anti-malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine be used to treat those with COVID-19. Dr. Smith called it "an unproven option" with potentially dangerous side effects, including blindness. He said it could be reasonable to make the drug available to those who are very sick without any other options.
Meanwhile a third Arkansas legislator announced Monday he had tested positive for COVID-19. Rep. Les Warren of Hot Springs said he is experiencing minimal symptoms and is in self-isolation at home. Representatives Vivian Flowers of Pine Bluff and Reginald Murdock of Marianna had previously announced they had the virus.
A fiscal session of the legislature begins Wednesday. As had occurred during a special session two weeks ago, precautions will be taken in an effort to maintain safe distances for lawmakers and staff. The Senate will meet at the state Capitol, while the House will meet at the Jack Stephens Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.