With the new school year just getting underway, the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 continues spreading through Arkansas schools.
Data from the state Health Department and the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement shows over 200 school districts with high levels of infections.
ACHI president and CEO Dr. Joe Thompson says the virus is so widespread that even districts with higher rates of vaccination are seeing new infections.
“We’re in an acute surge, and all communities statewide have very, very high levels of transmission,” Thompson said. “We do hope over time that those with higher vaccination rates, those that have more of their citizens protected, may come out of that surge earlier. But right now, we’re not seeing the vaccination rates be tied to the number of infections.”
As of last week, 201 districts had at least 50 known infections per 10,000 residents, while 42 districts had over 100 new known infections. Those include districts in mostly rural areas across the state, including Malvern, Ashdown, Helena-West Helena and Ozark.
In the Little Rock School District, 189 students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of August. 113 cases have been reported in the Pulaski County Special School District, as well as 81 in the North Little Rock School District.
Thompson says, while the state does have guidelines for when schools should pivot to virtual instruction, he believes having a mask mandate for Pre-K through 12th grade students is the most effective policy.
“We all wish this would go away, but the reality is we are in a public health emergency. We’re having negative health outcomes as high as they ever were, and so we really do need all of our ability to fight this public health emergency,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, both the legislature and the governor have handcuffed efforts to safeguard our kids and others, so it’s fallen to local leaders to step forward and make some tough decisions.”
Education Secretary Johnny Key said in a media briefing last week that, so far, no school districts in the state have pivoted to virtual instruction.
The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement also recently released school district vaccination data, showing the Bentonville School District had the highest rate at 48% while the Fouke School District in southwest Arkansas had the lowest rate at just 2%.
ACHI also recently released school district-level data for vaccinations, as well as a map outlining vaccination rates broken down by ZIP code and community.