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Ready or not, school is open.

Arkansas' public schools reopened this week amid the continuing pandemic. While some students have opted for some or all online instruction, many are attending on-campus classes for the first time since schools shut down in mid-March.

Whether they are there for five days a week or fewer, there are K-12 students streaming into the state's schoolhouses this week.

Most, if not all, of them are appropriately masked and being greeting by similarly masked teachers and administrators who've spent the past several months wondering and worrying how this bold experiment might go.

Opening day reports were generally good. School administrators and teachers were as ready as they could be, welcoming students back to schoolhouses that have been transformed as well as possible to protect everyone there.

Parents who sent their children off to school doubtlessly share many of the same concerns. They are nonetheless gambling that preparations are enough to keep the students -- and all the adults they interact with at school and at home -- safe from the coronavirus.

Every surface in the schools was surely scrubbed clean before anyone entered. There are protocols in place to keep the schools clean, at least as much as is practicable.

Classrooms have been arranged and equipped to provide as much social distancing as possible. And teachers will be monitoring every movement of their charges to enforce social distancing and remind students to keep their masks on and wash their hands.

School won't be the same as it was in a pre-covid-19 world.

Yet, there will be teachers teaching in classrooms of children who do benefit from face-to-face instruction by trained educators. Although their interaction will be somewhat strained, students will be socializing with other students, learning life skills.

Presumably, those are the fundamental reasons why Gov. Asa Hutchinson and other decision-makers have insisted on opening the schools now.

It is also why the schools will remain open unless or until individual schools have to shift to totally virtual instruction because of outbreaks of covid-19. Even then, expect in-school classes to resume for some as quickly as possible.

Hutchinson has described education as one of the "essential" needs that must be met in society, despite the virus.

Plus, offering five-day-a-week instruction in the schools not only meets the educational needs of the children but also solves the dilemma faced by working parents who can't afford to stay at home with children doing online classwork.

Some parents can work from home, but others simply cannot. Some have extended family who can help out with online lessons. Others do not.

Those parents who must work away from home may yet have to juggle their responsibilities at work with online schooling of their children. For now, they're trusting the schools to stay open.

So, what is the environment in which the schools have opened?

Better than it was, not as good as had been hoped.

Think back a little over a month ago, when Gov. Hutchinson mandated the wearing of masks whenever social distancing is not possible.

Active covid-19 cases in the state at the time were approaching 7,000. Hospitalizations were straining medical staffs. More than 34,600 Arkansans had tested positive for the disease since the outbreak began. The state's coronavirus deaths then totaled 374.

The governor and state Education Secretary Johnny Key were already focused on reopening the schools for in-class instruction. Getting Arkansans to practice social distancing and wear masks was part of the plan to make that possible by better controlling the spread of the disease.

In the weeks since, Hutchinson and state health authorities have frequently repeated the call for such safety measures.

What has been the result?

The virus is still working its way through Arkansas. Cumulative covid-19 cases, including those who have recovered or died, neared 57,300 on Tuesday. The Arkansas death toll from covid-19 hit 711.

Yet, the number of active covid-19 cases was down to just over 5,300 cases. Hospitalizations were down to 466 cases. Both numbers are improvements.

The percentage of positive cases, compared to testing, has shown some decline, falling to 8.2 percent. The number is higher than desired but headed, as Hutchinson emphasizes, "in the right direction."

The infection rate is, for the most part, either on a downward trend or at least flat, he said.

Hutchinson has, however, also acknowledged that opening the schools to in-person classes will likely lead to more coronavirus infections in the state.

A few cases were reported within Arkansas schools on opening day. More will come. That's inevitable.

How many more? How will schools -- and families -- respond?

Ready or not, we're about to find out.

Brenda Blagg is a freelance columnist and longtime journalist in Northwest Arkansas. Email her at [email protected]

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