Gov. Asa Hutchinson said schools in Arkansas will return to regular in-class procedures this fall with the possibility of supplemental online learning as needed.
The governor gave the news during his almost-daily coronavirus briefing on Thursday alongside Ivy Pfeffer, the state’s deputy education commissioner.
Pfeffer gave an overview of a new program called Arkansas Ready for Learning that aims to prepare educators for a safe return to on-site instruction in August.
“We believe that this is an achievable goal,” said Pfeffer. “Especially if plans allow flexibility for learning options in case interruptions occur.”
The department released a 25-page document intended to help guide educators through developing plans to return to in-class instruction and encourages community engagement in each district.
The guide outlines considerations for both districts and schools in six areas, including fiscal governance, facilities and transportation, academics, human capital, student support, stakeholder communications and community engagement.
Pfeffer said safety measures will include good hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, screening adults and visitors, encouraging the use of face coverings, maintaining physical distance and encouraging people to stay home when they are sick.
She said it may be necessary to quickly pivot between face-to-face learning and online instruction.
“Ultimately, what school will look like is going to be guided by each district by working with their local community,” Pfeffer said.
Letter from Washington Regional
When asked, Gov. Hutchinson discussed a letter that was released Wednesday by Birch Wright, the chief operating officer of Washington Regional Medical System.
In the letter, Wright called the surge of COVID-19 cases in Northwest Arkansas a serious outbreak of the virus, one that is not merely the result of an increase in testing.
Hospitalizations have doubled each week since May 12 in Northwest Arkansas when there were only four patients admitted with severe cases of COVID-19 in all the region’s hospitals. As of Wednesday, there were over 70 positive patients in area hospitals.
Wright’s letter came on the heels of Hutchinson’s announcement earlier in the day that the state would push forward with the second phase of lifting restrictions on non-essential businesses on Monday, June 15.
“I read the letter,” said Hutchinson. “I thought it was very thoughtful and well-timed.”
He said he agrees that more hospitalizations are not a result of a ramp in testing, but proof that more people are actually becoming sick because of COVID-19.
“The reason I said I thought the timing was good is because while we announced the lifting of some restrictions in Phase 2, that reminder in that letter is an emphasis or an exclamation point to all of us that this has serious consequences and we have to take it seriously and follow the public health guidelines.”
Hutchinson said he still thinks the state should continue reopening.
“We made the right decision to lift restrictions so that we don’t continue to cause more damage to people’s lives and their livelihood,” he said.
Hutchinson said his only worry is that further reopening could send the wrong signal to people who might think the pandemic is ending.
“Even though we are opening up and expanding our economy, that does not diminish the seriousness of this virus,” he said, adding that the two messages need to be communicated simultaneously.
“We’ve tried to do that at every step, but sometimes people hear what they want to hear,” Hutchinson said. “So we have to constantly remind people that (the virus) is going to be with us through next year whether we’re talking about school, sports or business livelihood.”
Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas reached 10,816 on Thursday, which is an increase of 448 since Wednesday. Of those, four were from correctional facilities.
Hospitalizations are up six to 187, and there were six new deaths, bringing the toll to 171.
The active case count is currently at 3,294, meaning 7,351 patients have so far recovered from the illness.