State Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock – a retired educator, leader with the Arkansas Education Association and member of the Senate Education Committee – says the state’s approach to dealing with COVID-19 has been sporadic and uneven.
“I think at best we’re getting a C. I think we could have an A. I think we’re moving toward a B now, now that we are being required by the governor to have everybody mask up,” Chesterfield said.
“I think we’re dealing with it in fits and starts. I think the decision to open up quickly is a mistake, was a mistake. I think the governor’s moving in the right direction now by issuing a statewide mask-wearing mandate. But I worry in that we’re so busily trying to open up an economy that is not going to work unless we get the virus under control. And I think that’s what so many people are failing to understand: if you can’t get the virus under control, you can’t open up the economy,” she said.
Chesterfield sees the end of substantial unemployment benefit extensions as worrisome to keeping the economy on an even keel.
“I’m especially concerned because people are losing money now, the $600 they want to take away. But that’s what was propping up the economy and nobody’s seeing that relationship,” she said.
Congress is exploring new legislation to address individual and business interests related to the pandemic, but leaders remain distant on a compromise. A July 31 deadline brought some unemployment benefits to a halt.
The state is coming out of a brutal month that saw a 63% increase in COVID-19 deaths and an 84% increase in hospitalizations in July.
Chesterfield’s biggest concern now is the reopening of schools. Gov. Asa Hutchinson set an Aug. 24 date for reopening and he’s put forth a calendar to restart high school athletics. A survey of AEA members showed that 80% of union members have concerns over this Fall’s plans. And, a recent survey from the Arkansas Department of Education finds one-third of school districts have populations with sizable numbers of students planning to stay home for distance learning.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to open up schools right now. As a matter of fact, I was meeting with the superintendents and their representatives the other day and with representatives from the broadband community to talk about how we could better serve the needs of the kids who are underserved as far as providing a virtual education,” Chesterfield said.
“The only way I see it is perhaps a hybrid model where some kids, so that you can have the proper social distancing, could come, but that’s going to be at a lot of expense to the public schools,” she added.
Chesterfield lays a huge part of the lack of preparation for dealing with COVID-19 – the health crisis, economic carnage and the school situation – on the federal government and the Trump administration.
“This business of each state doing it his or her way, I thought that went away with the Confederation of States that I taught about,” said the former history teacher. “And the reason that we have a Constitution is so that we will have something that promotes the general welfare. And we’re looking at the general welfare going down the drain because we do not have somebody promoting the general welfare and providing for the common defense. And we need a defense against this pandemic, just like we do if we were at war with an enemy.”
Watch Sen. Chesterfield’s full interview in the video below, including her thoughts on the legacy of the late civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis.