Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is not yet ready to permit statewide school closures.
The governor delivered the news in a Friday press conference, and said he’s relying heavily on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which does not recommend school closures at this time.
Some districts in Central Arkansas are closed for the remainder of the month, but Hutchinson said those closures are because of nearby confirmed coronavirus cases.
Until cases are confirmed in other parts of the state, schools should remain open, he said.
“If there was a confirmed case (in a district), then you would want to close the school long enough to have cleansing and deep cleaning before it is reopened,” said Hutchinson. “But that is a short-term remedy.”
He also read parts of the CDC’s guidelines on school response to COVID-19.
“Closing schools early in the spread of disease for a short time (e.g., 2 weeks) will be unlikely to stem the spread of disease or prevent impact on the health care system, while causing significant disruption for families, schools, and those who may be responding to COVID-19 outbreaks in health care settings,” notes the CDC. “It may also increase impact on older adults who care for grandchildren. Waiting to enact school closures until at the correct time in the epidemic (e.g., later in the spread of disease) combined with other social distancing interventions allows for optimal impact despite disruption.”
Hutchinson was joined Friday by Dr. Greg Bledsoe, Arkansas Surgeon General; Johnny Key, director of the State Department of Education, and Dr. Nate Smith, Arkansas Secretary of Health.
“What we know is that schools are the safest places in the state for our students,” said Key. “We want to keep that access open as long as we can.”
Fayetteville Public Schools Superintendent John L. Colbert said in a message to parents Friday that the district is indeed required to remain open until a directive to close is received from the state.
He said Fayetteville schools must also follow state law by counting students who self-quarantine as absent.
“As long as schools are open, the district is required to comply with this law,” said Colbert, adding that any students who are quarantined under a doctor’s order will have their absences coded as medical exclusions and will be considered excused.
Colbert said Thursday the district has received state approval to use Alternative Methods of Instruction days, and that each school has prepared assignments that will be used in the event of school closures. Students were set to receive a packet today (March 13) with instructions on what to do if classes are canceled.
All parent-teacher conferences and meetings will be held by telephone, email or through a video conferencing platform until further notice. The district has also banned all international and out of state travel for staff members and students.
As a precaution, the district has canceled all district-sponsored field trips, afterschool events and large gatherings.
Colbert said the district has requested approval from the USDA to implement a feeding program if schools are closed. When approved, free lunches will be available at Owl Creek School and through the FPS food truck for anyone 18 years old or younger. Food truck locations will be announced later, if necessary.
In the event of a closure, Colbert said custodial staff will be asked to return to the school first to prepare all buildings for employees and students by disinfecting all desktops, countertops, tabletops, doorknobs, door push bars, light switches, water fountains, and railings, and other touch points.