The date for K-12 students to return to school in Arkansas has been pushed back as the state sees its second-highest daily increase in new coronavirus cases.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Thursday an increase of 806 new cases brought the state’s total to 26,052, while four new COVID-19 deaths brought the death toll to 309. Arkansas had its highest-ever increase in people hospitalized with the disease, rising by 36 for a total of 394.
Speaking in his daily briefing on the pandemic, Hutchinson said the state is ready for students to safely return to class between Aug. 24 and 26, as opposed to the usual start date of Aug. 13.
“We have our infrastructure in place, we have more experience with this virus, we have made adjustments, we are better prepared for our online training and the blended learning environment that’s necessary,” Hutchinson said. “It’s just a totally different environment that we have right now versus what we did toward the end of last school year.”
Education Secretary Johnny Key said the state has set up a three-part framework of actions school districts can take in response to the pandemic, including closing facilities and pivoting to remote instruction. However, he said there’s no guidance from the state as to how to notify parents when someone tests positive at their child’s school.
“There is no set policy or procedure at this point because the balance between privacy laws, HIPAA, and the right to the public to know is always a fine balance. So we have not established a set procedure for making those notifications,” Key said. “When that has happened in the summer, when there have been situations, the local districts have made that known.”
The framework features three “response levels” which districts can choose to enter based on the number of COVID-19 cases in the general public, though no specific guidance exists on when school districts should enter a specific phase of the plan. Key said each district must designate a point-of-contact to coordinate with the state Health Department on how best to respond to the pandemic.
Key said, though it’s strongly recommended, individual school districts have the power to decide whether to require students, teachers and staff to wear face masks. Despite a recent resurgence of the virus in Arkansas, Hutchinson said there’s no statewide plan to test all public school students, teachers and staff when the school year begins.
“They'll be testing as needed; obviously when students are symptomatic or travel or there's a reason to do it. There's not any plan to do widespread testing all through the school, but to do it on an as-needed basis,” Hutchinson said.
Thursday’s increase in new coronavirus cases brought the state’s total number of active COVID-19 cases to 5,751. Pulaski County had 104 residents test positive, with 78 cases from Washington County and 56 from Sebastian County.