The Little Rock School District and the teachers' union on Sunday evening appeared to be heading toward a confrontation over covid-19 safety precautions as the president of the union promised an end to in-person teaching and said educators were prepared to switch to an entirely virtual mode of instruction beginning today.
About 8 p.m. on Sunday, the Little Rock Education Association issued a statement saying educators would only provide virtual instruction beginning today because of the district's covid-19 procedures. The union described safety measures within schools as inadequate and routinely ignored by students and staff.
"At this juncture, LREA members believe that our schools are not safe for in-person instruction and that the risk to our students, our staff members, and our community is too great," the statement said.
Earlier in the day, a day that saw the state report just under 500 new covid-19 cases, Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore in a letter to parents vowed that schools would remain open. Employees who do not report to work could face discipline, he said.
Poore told families the district had learned that the Little Rock Rock teachers' union had made the decision not to show up for in-person instruction starting today, but said the district had no plans to close schools.
"As we have stated previously, we understand that our parents need our schools to be open and we are committed to doing everything we can to avoid disruption to the learning environment," Poore said in the letter.
In a statement provided by a spokeswoman, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Sunday evening said the state has had "a good start to this school year" amid the expected challenges, with the well-being of students and teachers as the top priority.
"With a declining positivity rate in Pulaski County and with the safety measures in place, it is difficult to understand the resistance to teaching in the classroom," Hutchinson said. "The Little Rock School District should not be deprived of the success that is occurring for our students across the state just because the union objects."
In his letter to parents, the superintendent of the state-controlled Little Rock School District emphasized that schools will remain open for in-person instruction today.
"All schools will be open, buses will run, and meals will be served," Poore told families. "We still expect a large number of our dedicated teaching staff to be present, as well as Central Office staff, and substitute teachers who have completed state-mandated background checks, to replace teachers who do not report to work in-person."
He went on to warn of "potential disciplinary action for employees who do not report to work in-person." If schools were to close, the district would have to extend the school year, Poore said.
The school district's daily covid-19 case update on Sunday noted no new positive cases nor individuals entering quarantine because of possible exposure.
Teresa Knapp Gordon, the president of the Little Rock Education Association, did not respond to calls requesting comment on Sunday evening.
The statement from the union cited a litany of safety hazards that could contribute to spread of the coronavirus, including employees and student who were not wearing masks or wearing them incorrectly; a lack of social distancing; nonfunctioning thermometers; inconsistent disinfection efforts; students eating in close proximity to one another; and mask "breaks" during classes.
According to the statement, custodial staff within the district have been unable to handle the increased cleaning and disinfection work associated with the outbreak, and the district had not hired additional custodians to assist them.
In the statement issued by the union, Gordon said educators have given the school district's plan for reopening amid the pandemic five weeks. The plan is not working and is not going to work, she said.
"If we do not transition to virtual instruction now, someone is going to get sick. Someone is going to die. We will not be responsible for that happening," she said in the statement.
The statement from the union said that the action beginning today was neither a strike nor a work stoppage. "We are completely and totally willing to work and serve our students virtually in a manner that keeps everyone safe and alive," the statement said.
Arkansas Secretary of Education Johnny Key, who leads the city school district that remains under state control, said the district has "responded promptly and effectively to the occurrences of COVID infections and adjusted schedules and operations as necessary to mitigate risk"
NEW CASES DECLINE
Nearly two dozen deaths from covid-19 were reported on Sunday in Arkansas as the number of active cases remained stubbornly high, even as the state reported 487 new covid-19 cases, the lowest single-day total in approximately two weeks.
However, a data problem meant the Arkansas Department of Health reported no antigen tests results on Sunday. The absence of results from the rapid but less-reliable antigen tests suggests that the new case total on Sunday may be an undercount.
Health department spokesman Gavin Lesnick on Sunday said officials were working to identify the data issue related to the results from antigen testing.
The last time Arkansas' new-case total was lower than the 487 confirmed and probable cases reported on Sunday was Sept. 14, when 399 confirmed cases were reported. The number of cases reported on Sunday represented a decrease over the day before for the third consecutive day.
In an interview on Sunday, state epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Dillaha said she hoped the state had "turned the corner."
Dillaha expressed optimism that the upswing of cases Arkansas has experienced after Labor Day, which coincided with college students returning to campuses, will begin a downward trend.
When asked about past instances when the state appeared to have turned the corner, with tests reflecting a decline in cases for a short period of time only to have infections surge again, Dillaha acknowledged that turning the corner "may not be the best way to describe it."
"I think we will have ebbs and flows of cases," she went on. "And so there'll be periods where we have an increase and periods when we'll have a decrease."
Although she believes the state is in a period of declining cases, Dillaha said she does not anticipate that the decline will be sustained until the end of the pandemic.
"I think as we get into the fall, with less people being outdoors, more people being indoors, and then holidays coming, I think we very well could see increased spread again," she said.
The state's death toll on Sunday rose by 23 for a total of 1,308 deaths related to covid-19, the second-highest single-day increase in Arkansas since the start of the pandemic.
All of the deaths were among confirmed cases, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.
The vast majority of the new cases reported on Sunday were classified as confirmed cases based on polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test results. Just 12 new cases were considered probable cases based on the Department of Health's criteria.
Results from 6,802 PCR tests were reported on Saturday, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Sunday noted that the state had surpassed 200,000 PCR tests during the month of September. The state missed its goal of conducting 190,000 tests in August by about 3,600 tests.
"I am encouraged by so many Arkansans pulling together to beat back the virus this weekend. Let's keep it up," Hutchinson wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
Of the confirmed cases reported on Sunday, 82 were in correctional facilities, according to the Department of Health, with the remaining 393 in the community.
The cumulative number of infections in the state on Sunday increased to 81,242.
Among the confirmed cases, the Department of Health on Sunday classified an additional 514 people as having recovered from covid-19, for a total of 70,605.
The number of active confirmed and probable cases dropped by 87, according to the Arkansas Department of Health, for a total of 7,327.
The department's data on hospitalizations and patients on ventilators shows hospitalizations increased by seven for a total of 461 and the number of patients on ventilators decreased by six for a total of 86.
Hospitalizations have climbed again in recent days after falling from their peak in early August, when officials reported more than 500 patients concurrently hospitalized.
If medical facilities are forced to care for more patients as a result of the large number of newly infected individuals reported throughout this month, Arkansas could surpass the 500-person hospitalization mark again before too long.
A total of 5,248 people have been hospitalized in Arkansas since March, when the first case of the virus was identified in the state.
Sunday's death total of 23 people represented a recent high and approached the single-day record set earlier this month.
A record 27 deaths were reported on Sept. 2, though some of the reported deaths had been belatedly added to the state total, the health secretary said at the time.
Between Friday and Sunday, the state added 63 confirmed deaths to the tally. (On Saturday, two previously reported probable covid-19 deaths were reclassified as confirmed deaths, according to the Department of Health.)
The deaths reported on Sunday included three deaths in Stone County and two each in Boone, Cross, Jefferson, Sevier and Washington counties, according to Lesnick.
One death each was reported in Arkansas, Carroll, Chicot, Garland, Howard, Johnson, Lonoke, Newton, Poinsett and Pulaski counties.
Lesnick said five of the deaths reported on Sunday occurred within the past week, 13 occurred earlier in September and five occurred in August.
According to Dillaha, deaths will lag behind hospitalizations because of the time it takes for individuals who become infected to get sick enough to enter the hospital. Because of a recent increase in hospitalizations, as a consequence, the state has seen more deaths, she said.
"But we do also have, in terms of the deaths, some delayed reporting," Dillaha added. "So it takes a while for the Health Department to receive death certificates ... it's always been that way, it's not just covid."
Of the 1,308 deaths reported so far in Arkansas, 148 have occurred among individuals the department considered to be probable cases.