With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, schools will be closed for the remainder of the school year in Arkansas, with alternative methods of instruction (AMI) continuing, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Monday (April 6) during his daily COVID-19 press conference.
The governor originally closed schools on March 15 for two weeks due to the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in Arkansas. He extended that closure deadline to April 17 nearly a week later. The governor and state education officials said there would be off-site instruction during this time and the issue would be re-evaluated at a later date.
Arkansas Secretary of Education Johnny Key said he is urging flexibility among administrators with respect to how classes are taught using AMI, saying the best instruction possible is more important than compliance for students and teachers. He also said meal availability and meal delivery will continue by the districts. In response to how the closure may impact the school year that begins in August, Key said system officials are working “to mitigate any problems that carry over to next year.”
Graduation ceremonies are subject to Arkansas Department of Health guidelines, which currently restrict gatherings of 10 or more, Key said. He said there is some talk of schools holding ceremonies when restrictions are relaxed. The Arkansas Department of Education reports just under 34,000 high school seniors in the 2019-2020 school year.
Arkansas’ public school system has 1,054 buildings in 238 school districts, including facilities in 25 open-enrollment charter schools, according to the Arkansas Department of Education. The department also shows a K-12 student population of 479,432, with 33,399 teachers and 36,204 staff.
COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 875 as of Monday afternoon, up from 830 on Sunday. The number of deaths remained the same at 16. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 74 on Monday, up from the 67 on Sunday. As of Monday at 1 p.m., there were 347,003 U.S. cases and 10,335 deaths. Globally, there were 1,309,439 cases and 72,638 deaths.
Of the COVID-19 patients, 22 were on ventilators, down from 27 on Sunday, and 122 were healthcare workers, up from 114 on Sunday.
Gov. Hutchinson said modeling showing a slowing in the rate of a doubling of the number of cases indicates a “significant beneficial impact” in social distancing and other executive orders he has taken in recent weeks to slow the virus spread.
The governor also said the state is transferring some ventilators to Louisiana to help with the rapid rise in the number of cases there. Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith said medical facilities in the state have around 800 ventilators, with between 500-550 not now in use.
And like Dr. Tony Fauci and a growing number of physicians around the country, Smith also countered the claim by President Donald Trump about the effectiveness of the drug hydroxychloroquine. The president has in recent weeks touted its use, but most healthcare experts say it isn’t proven and its side effects can be deadly. Smith’s note about the drug was in response to a question.
Rep. Les Warren, R-Hot Springs, reported Monday he has tested positive for COVID-19, making him the third of Arkansas’ 135 legislators to do so. Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, and Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, have also tested positive.
“On Sunday, I was informed by my physician that I tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. The symptoms are minimal and I’m self-isolating at home. I informed Speaker [Matthew] Shepherd of the results and that I will be voting proxy for the Fiscal Session. Thank you to the medical staff who treated me over the weekend and all of those on the front lines of this crisis,” Warren said in a statement.
Warren’s case comes just two days before the state legislature is set to begin the 2020 fiscal session. Legislative leaders plan to hold the session in Little Rock with numerous precautions to keep legislators and staff safe. The health department issued the following guidelines for those attending the session.
• Hold meetings within the next two to three weeks, and hold meetings in a large space that allows for proper social distancing between attendees.
• Urge members with any symptoms – including cough, scratchy throat, runny nose, shortness of breath, fever, body aches, or sneezing – to stay home and vote by proxy.
• Screen all attendees prior to entering meeting places by taking their temperatures and asking attendees about symptoms, travel, and exposure to positive cases.
• Send home any attendees screening positive to symptoms, exposures, or travel.
• Separate legislators who, upon screening, have questionable symptoms (i.e., mild seasonal allergy-like symptoms), exposures, or travel of unclear significance and seating them in a distant area.
• Provide masks for legislators who would like to wear one, especially in situations where social distancing is difficult to maintain. Legislators are welcome to bring their own cloth masks.
• Attendees who develop symptoms after screening will be given a mask to wear and seated in a distant area until they can be evaluated further.