The 2020-21 school year in Arkansas will be delayed from Aug. 13 to Aug. 24 and no later than Aug. 26, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced on Thursday.
Districts across the state need more time to prepare for a blended learning environment, the governor said during his almost-daily COVID-19 news briefing.
The state has not mandated any specific procedures for schools, but has instead released a set of guidelines that give each of the districts the flexibility to decide how they’ll handle the school year during the pandemic.
For example, Fayetteville school officials last month announced they’ll offer a choice between traditional in-person classes and virtual off-site learning.
As for safety measures such as requiring face masks in schools, state officials said those decisions will also be left up to the individual districts.
“Local districts can make the determination of whether to require masks,” said Secretary of Education Johnny Key. “It is strongly recommended, but at the same time…those local districts and boards can make those decisions based on the unique needs and situations within those districts.”
Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith agreed, and said some schools might be able to avoid masks by separating children far enough apart at certain times during the day.
“Obviously we don’t want our children to go to school and get infected,” said Smith. “We want our children to have a safe environment, and we know that masks can help in those situations, but physical distancing can accomplish the same thing.”
Smith said while it’s been primarily adults who have become infected with COVID-19, districts should still consider the safety of teachers and the potential for a child to bring the virus home to their families.
Since officials first released the education guidelines, districts across the state have responded with varying plans.
The Fayetteville School District released a document that stated students will be required to wear a mask while inside school buildings, but the Little Rock School District’s COVID-19 FAQ said parents will determine whether their child should wear a mask at school.
Gov. Hutchinson said the state has developed protocols for schools to use when a COVID-19 case emerges in a district. The required response will depend on the level of spread in a particular community as determined by the Health Department. The procedures range from reinforcing hand washing and physical distancing when the spread is minimal to full closure of schools if the virus spread is substantial.
Key said there’s no statewide mandate about when teachers should report to school or when the school year will end as a result of the delayed start since those dates will be different in each district depending on individual teacher contracts and whether outbreaks in some areas require calendar changes.
COVID-19 case update
The number of known positive COVID-19 cases in Arkansas reached 26,052 on Thursday, an increase of 806 since Wednesday.
It’s the second-largest spike for a single day since last week when 878 new cases were reported on July 2.
Secretary Smith said of the new cases, 110 are from correctional facilities across the state.
Smith said hospitalizations have reached a new high of 394, up 36 from Wednesday, and patients on a ventilator are up three to 82.
Four more Arkansans have died from COVID-19, bringing the toll to 309.
Pulaski County reported the most new cases on Thursday at 104. Washington County was second with 78 new cases, while Sebastian County reported 56, Faulkner County reported 51 and Benton County reported 49. Ten other counties that reported between 10 and 20 new cases on Thursday.
There are currently 5,751 active cases in Arkansas, and 19,992 patients are categorized as having recovered from the illness.
Smith displayed a chart on Thursday which shows the top 10 cities in Arkansas with the most currently active COVID-19 cases. At the top of the list was Springdale with 641 active cases followed by Little Rock with 414. Rogers had the third-highest active case count with 256, and is followed closely by Fort Smith with 255. The list also includes Conway (203), Fayetteville (153), Texarkana (119), Russellville (116), Danville (96) and Bentonville (78).
The chart also shows the active case rate per 10,000 people for each of the 10 cities. Smith said by looking at the case count alongside the overall population of each city, more information can be gleaned.
“This tells us…if you’re out and about in your community what are the chances you’re going to encounter someone who has an active case,” said Smith.
The chart shows Springdale’s rate at 79 per 10,000 residents with 641 overall cases, but a smaller city like Danville has a rate of 398 with its 96 cases.
More charts from Thursday