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Schools in Arkansas hope for ‘business as usual’

Educators face continued covid concerns, but they can't wait for class by Olivia Alexander | August 22, 2022 at 7:10 a.m.
Students wearing masks go to class at the Rogers Heritage High School in this Aug. 16, 2021, file photo. The Rogers School District was requiring masks for students, staff, faculty and visitors for 30 days. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

For the first time in three years, Jonesboro Public Schools' faculty and staff gathered in-person Tuesday for their annual back-to-school meeting.

William Cheatham, assistant superintendent of Student Services, said the district's employees were noticeably happy to see one another and glad to be back as they filled 1,000 seats at the high school auditorium for the official start of school. The district held the meeting online in 2020 because of the covid-19 pandemic, and after planning to meet in-person in 2021, district leaders moved the event to a remote setting because of the delta variant.

As students return to classrooms in Arkansas' public schools and colleges this month, educational administrators will continue to monitor the pandemic. For many students, though, the 2022-23 school year will look the most similar to the day before schools closed their doors in March 2020.

Mike Mertens, the assistant executive director for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, told the Democrat-Gazette that many educators "would like to think the pandemic is behind us."

"People are hoping [this year] will be business as usual," Mertens said.

He said while some districts may recommend that students and staff wear masks this school year, he hasn't seen any say they'll be required upon the return to school.

Jonesboro Public Schools last lifted its mask mandate in late February of this year, Cheatham said. Current policies follow updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and require a five-day quarantine for students and staff who test positive for covid-19. After the five days, if no longer experiencing symptoms, students and staff can return to school and wear masks for five days, he said.

Throughout the pandemic, district leaders dealt with the unknown, he said. Then, they had to navigate the community's varying opinions on the correct steps to be taken, Cheatham said.

As Jonesboro's covid-19 response coordinator and health department point of contact, the assistant superintendent said it's been a "stressful" two years, and he's ready to move forward. He believes students, parents and staff members are, too.

"I've not had a question about covid since May," he said. "Everybody's ready to get back to the 'new normal,' as I like to say."

The Little Rock School Board on Aug. 11 voted to make masks optional for students and staff this school year, ending the mask mandate that had been in place for most of the past two years.

Last year, the district sued state education leaders for the ability to mandate masks in district school buildings in a case that went to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Superintendent Jermall Wright said at the meeting that the Little Rock School District was the only remaining district in Pulaski County and potentially the state to require masks. Board Member Vicki Hatter said nearly 60% of 747 teachers surveyed on the matter favored optional mask-wearing.

Sadie Kirk, a senior at Little Rock's Parkview High School, said the district first lifted its mask mandate in March and shifted to a "stoplight system" associating green with a low level of cases in the community, yellow with a moderate number and red with a high level of cases. She said the case level mostly fell in the yellow category, which meant masks were encouraged, but not recommended.

However, Kirk said many of her classmates continued to wear masks at the time.

"Students were wary about taking them off at first," she said, adding that she hopes Parkview students will continue to consider case numbers when they decide whether to wear masks at school.

Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District Superintendent Jeremy Owoh also said he was surprised to see the district's students continue to wear masks at the end of the last school year. Even during "green" periods, around 90% of students continued wearing masks, he said.

"Our young people are very conscious about what's happening around them, and they are able to make sound decisions," Owoh said. "Sometimes we assume that our young people are at a level where they're not able to be adaptable, but they were, and they are."

Owoh said his son, a ninth-grade student, will go to school with a mask, but he'll leave it up to him to decide if he wants to wear it.

He said his son knows to wash his hands and keep his distance in crowded areas.

"He's very conscious of appropriate protocols," Owoh said. "As a parent, I feel confident that the school setting is the best place for him."

Online learning will continue to be an option in the district this year, but the number of students who've opted to learn online this year has dropped, according to the superintendent. He said parents know their students do better behaviorally and academically when they're at school in-person.

He said his son flourishes when he's around his peers. Owoh said he could see a difference in his energy when he couldn't go to school at the beginning of the pandemic. Young people, like adults, are accustomed to routines, he said.

"Getting them back in the routine of getting up, getting dressed, going to school, being active, participating in extracurricular activities and then going home, it does our young people well to have those types of routines," Owoh said.

Kirk also said she's hoping for a senior year without pandemic disruptions.

A Little Rock School District student since the age of five, she'd like the opportunity to "finish it out strong," she said.

"I want to enjoy my senior year, after high school being so 'covid' for me," Kirk said. "Everyone wants to experience what a typical high school experience would be."

Arkansas Department of Education Secretary Johnny Key on Wednesday published a memo on the state's most recent guidance for navigating the pandemic in schools. He encouraged districts to keep a staff member designated as the point of contact for the health department's division of elementary and secondary education liaison.

In addition, the secretary asked each district to upload a link to its Plan for Continuity of Services, a statement published on its website describing how the district will maintain the health and safety of students, educators and staff members, as required by the American Rescue Plan Act.

Fort Smith Public Schools Superintendent Terry Morawski in July told his school board the district will continue to sanitize classrooms once a day and touch points like door handles throughout the day. He said each school building has hand sanitizer dispensers in classrooms and shared spaces. Other supplies can be made available to teachers and staff through requests, he said.

"I want to assure the board and the public that we're continuing our prior cleaning processes to minimize the spreading of covid and other contagious diseases," he said.

Huda Sharaf, the medical director at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville's Pat Walker Health Clinic, said students, staff and guests travel to the school from all over the world, so the clinic constantly monitors the spread of all infectious diseases, not only covid-19.

Just before the coronavirus pandemic, Northwest Arkansas had a mumps outbreak, which led the university to establish its Communicable Diseases Outbreak Committee, Sharaf said. The clinic considers the amount of virus cases in the local community when determining its covid-19 procedures, she said, and looks at the greater landscape to prepare for any possible virus outbreaks before they arrive on campus.

"We don't live in a vacuum," Sharaf said. "We live in Fayetteville, Arkansas."

The school has moved to "source masking," or asking that people who are experiencing covid-19 symptoms or have been exposed to the virus wear masks in public, Sharaf said.

She said the campus clinic will continue to encourage the community to get vaccinated. "Education is key," going forward, she added.

Sharaf said she's noticed that people are much more open to following mitigation measures and receiving vaccines today than they were before the pandemic began.

With this, Sharaf added that the Pat Walker Health Clinic is a fully staffed office that provides covid-19 vaccinations and booster shots to students and staff. For those who have been hesitant to receive mRNA vaccines, the clinic now offers Novavax's non-mRNA covid-19 vaccine, she said.

Students want to stay on campus, she said, and the clinic wants to help foster a safe environment for everyone at the university.

"No one wants anything less than a normal college experience," Sharaf said. "That motivates us."


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