Back to school prep includes testing machines, internet service expansion; COVID-19 cases approach 40,000

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 985 views 

Arkansas Secretary of Education Dr. Johnny Key

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday (July 27) announced the purchase of 200 COVID-19 testing machines and a $10 million plan to provide internet service to public school students as part of preparations for a planned opening of schools in late August.

The governor said during his daily COVID-19 briefing he is releasing $10 million from his Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund to pay for 20,000 internet service spots using cellular data. The money, which comes from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved by Congress earlier this year to provide aid to individuals, businesses and state and local governments in response to the pandemic, also provides 24 months of unlimited data. Gov. Hutchinson said school districts will select the internet vendor and may use district funds to provide more access points.

“They [students] will be able to utilize that access in their home environments so they won’t have to sit around the bus or go to McDonald’s or some other place to try to have access and do their homework,” Gov. Hutchinson said.

Gov. Hutchinson and Arkansas Secretary of Education Dr. Johnny Key said they do not yet know how many students will need help with internet access because they do not know how many students will decide to go to school or use virtual learning options.

Key also said the Arkansas Department of Education will spend $1 million to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) that will act as a “strategic stockpile” in the event a school runs out of face masks, gloves and other PPE.

ADE is also conducting a systemwide survey of schools to obtain information about plans to return to school, Key said. Info being sought includes social distancing measures, communication plans with parents, number of students selecting the various options (in-person, virtual, blended approach, etc.) when returning to school, any technology needs they have, and PPE supplies.

“We plan to post those results on our division website. It will be very public. We want the communities in the state to understand the status of each district. And we’ll also use that data to help reinforce our support for those districts that might need a little bit more assistance before we get ready for school to start next month,” Key said.

The Arkansas Department of Health has ordered 200 BD Veritor COVID-19 test machines that will come with testing kits and necessary supplies, Gov. Hutchinson said. He said they should begin to arrive next week, and officials are still working on where to locate the devices.

A May 9 update from the Federal Drug Administration said antigen testing machines play a “critical role in the fight against COVID-19” because they are cheaper and easier to produce, but are not as reliable as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests now used by most commercial and state testing labs.

“Antigen tests are very specific for the virus but are not as sensitive as molecular PCR tests. This means that positive results from antigen tests are highly accurate, but there is a higher chance of false negatives, so negative results do not rule out infection. With this in mind, negative results from an antigen test may need to be confirmed with a PCR test prior to making treatment decisions or to prevent the possible spread of the virus due to a false negative,” noted the FDA memo.

Known COVID-19 cases in Arkansas totaled 39,447 on Monday, up from 38,623 on Sunday, and up 6% from the 37,249 on Friday. Of the 824 new cases, 10 were from correctional facilities. There are 6,674 active cases. The number of deaths rose from 401 to 408. The number of COVID patients hospitalized in Arkansas was 489 on Monday, up from 480 on Sunday. There are 110 patients on ventilators, up from 103 Sunday.

The top five counties with new cases reported were: Pulaski (120), Washington (62), Craighead (46), Benton (45), and Sebastian (30). The counties accounted for 37.2% of the 814 new cases reported Monday.

As of Monday at 1 p.m., there were 4,259,667 U.S. cases and 147,103 deaths. Globally, there were 16,330,977 cases and 650,029 deaths.