Arkansas pediatrician group opposes opening all schools; COVID-19 hospitalizations again reach new record

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,748 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday (July 21) showed a national television news segment in which five pediatricians said they would send their children to school. Coincidentally, the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said Tuesday they do not support opening schools.

The governor showed the news program during his daily COVID-19 briefing. The segment snippet showed by the governor did not note if all the pediatricians had children and if the children were returning to public or private schools. The segment showed by the governor also did not include a segment from the report in which the pediatricians said schools should open, “but the key is to reopen safely.”

Opening schools will return hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and staff to more than 1,000 school facilities in the state. During the 2019-2020 school year, the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) reported 479,432 K-12 students, 33,399 teachers and 36,274 staff.

Gov. Hutchinson and Acting Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero said they were aware of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (ARAAP) statement but had not had time to fully review it and provide comment.

Gov. Hutchinson provided this statement to Talk Business & Politics: “I appreciate the statement issued by the Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. We are fortunate to have Dr. Jose Romero leading our Department of Health. Dr. Romero is not only a member of the Arkansas Chapter but he is recognized as a national pediatric infectious disease expert. As the news release states we all have the same “goal of having students physically present in school.” That is what we are working to have beginning the week of August 24. The recommendations of the Arkansas Chapter are useful and we are implementing many of those ideas including masks in the schools, social distancing and Cares Act funds for purchasing PPE. We will continue to address new issues as they arise over the next 30 days, and I am grateful for the comments of respected pediatricians.”

The ARAAP statement noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) did say it was good for the mental health of children to return to school, but that national report noted that school openings “should happen with careful measures to keep students and staff safe, and with flexibility to adapt as needed to the community’s prevalence of COVID-19.”

“Given this guidance, at this time ARAAP cannot support a statewide return-to-school decision for Arkansas in August. While some counties may have extremely low rates of spread, others have growing numbers of positive cases or consistent positive test rates hovering around 30%, indicating that community spread is uncontrolled and testing is not yet sufficiently reaching all infected people. Additionally, safety policies and resources are not standardized across the state, leading to inequitable protection for children, teachers, and families. These disparities are especially detrimental to Black, Latinx, Marshallese, and other minority and low-income individuals who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in Arkansas. These factors suggest that opening all schools to in-person learning may not be the right choice at this time,” the group noted in its statement.

ARAAP strategies for opening schools included the following.
• Clear guidance from the state on specific, county-level data indicators that show it is safer to open specific school districts.
• An even stronger mask requirement in schools for mandatory K-12 student and teacher masks, with strong consideration given to requiring them for Pre-k 3 and 4.
• Provide school districts with clearer guidance on how to achieve social distancing and smaller, consistent cohorts of students.

“This will likely require fewer students to be in school buildings at any given time. Districts should be granted approvals to allow them to expand into space in community centers or to use creative scheduling to allow for social distancing when they open.”

• The state should utilize its purchasing power to obtain and distribute needed PPE, hand hygiene and cleaning supplies, and sanitation materials, including full medical PPE for all school nurses, building first responders, and teachers/para-professionals in self-contained/special needs classrooms.

The ARAAP is the second major Arkansas group to oppose a full opening of the schools. Arkansas Education Association Executive Director Tracey-Ann Nelson has said the move to open schools pushes students and educators into an “unsafe situation.”

Gov. Hutchinson said he has encountered a “very strong commitment” to return to school during his discussions with school officials and teachers. He said legitimate concerns from teachers include that of their safety and health, means of compensation if they have to quarantine, and if time in quarantine impacts allotted sick days or leave time.

“While we have a lot of work still to do, and the teachers have raised some very important questions that we still have to answer, and there are some things that we can look at that we can help our teachers more, we want to be able to do that. Everybody is together in going back to school and going back to school safely,” the governor said Tuesday.

Dr. Romero said all involved must remember that the situation could change at any time.

“Remember, this [opening of schools] is a moving target. COVID does what it wants. And we need to be flexible and adjust to the circumstances as they present over time. So, any recommendations that are made today, may not hold true in a week, a month, or two months. We need to be flexible,” he said.

Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 34,655 on Tuesday, up from 33,927 on Monday. Of the 728 new cases, 122 were from correctional facilities. There are 6,998 active cases. The number of deaths rose from 363 to 374. Of the 11 deaths, six were reported late, and did not happen in the previous 24 hours. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 488 on Tuesday, up from 471 on Monday. There are 110 patients on ventilators, down from 111 on Monday. Of the known cases since March 11, 27,283 have recovered.

There were seven counties that had more than 20 new known cases reported: Pulaski (110), Washington (62), Crawford (46), Benton (45), Sebastian (30), Jefferson (29), and Saline (24). The seven counties accounted for 57.1% of the 606 new community cases reported Tuesday.

As of Tuesday at 1 p.m., there were 3,858,686 U.S. cases and 141,158 deaths. Globally, there were 14,774,887 cases and 611,322 deaths.