Fort Smith superintendent: Mask mandate working, additional pay coming for full-time staff

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,682 views 

COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the Fort Smith Public Schools area, meaning a mask mandate will stay in place, at least for now. The mandate helped significantly reduce COVID disruptions among students and faculty, according to Superintendent Dr. Terry Morawski.

The FSPS school board voted Jan. 10 to reinstate a mask mandate for 30 days unless the district falls to 49 or less cases per 10,000 residents before that time. At the time, the district was in the purple zone with 137 cases per 10,000 residents. On Monday (Jan. 24) the district was in the pink zone (the highest level of cases) with 248 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) report for Jan. 17. ACHI releases a new report every Thursday, Morawski told the school board Monday. The classification is based on a two-week average.

If the district goes below 50 cases per 10,000 for a consecutive 14-day period, it will fall into the orange category as determined by ACHI.

On Jan. 10, there were 198 positive COVID cases in Fort Smith schools, 49 of which were staff and 149 of which were students, Morawski said at the time. By comparison, the district’s numbers were 40 total, with nine staff and 31 students, on Dec. 22. There were 647 students and staff quarantined Jan. 10 due to close contact.

On Monday, there were 177 positive COVID cases among students and staff, 90 of which were students and 27 of which were staff. There were an additional 224 students and nine staff in quarantine because of close contact.

“I can positively report and it is partially due to how the rules fall with our mask requirement and some changes that were made by the state immediately after the board made the decision, we dropped from nearly 700 staff and students to 233 today and that number keeps going down. And that’s not all school contact. It could be family members or someone not related to school. We have seen a very significant drop. It was around 900 at one point,” Morawski said.

He said COVID in the school district was moving in a downward direction, which is not always shown when looking at state and county numbers. On Monday, there were 741,881 active COVID cases in Arkansas, an increase of 3,243 from the day before. There were 3,258 active cases in Sebastian County.

“Very pleased our district has managed to stay open. The in-person learning just makes a huge difference for our kids to be able to be there on a daily basis and receive all the services that are in place at school,” Morawski said.

The district-wide mask mandate is set to expire Feb. 9, before another scheduled school board meeting. The board agreed to have a called meeting on Feb. 7 instead of the study session Feb. 14 in case any district business needs to be acted upon at the time. Board member Dalton Person suggested the district look at holding the meeting in a larger venue where more members of the public could attend in case there was high interest in the meeting.

Morawski told the board the administration had listened to its suggestion that something be done for employees to teachers and other employees to show appreciation to them through this time of high absenteeism due to COVID. Morawski said all full-time school staff members would receive a $1,000 additional payment. There are some details that need to be worked out with payroll, but Morawski said administration thought the staff would receive the payment before Spring Break in March.

“I want to thank all our school staff that have been here in this last month, keeping the doors open and keeping our students in class while many districts around us have had to go virtual for a period of time. We have been able to stay open, and that means people have covered classes that maybe don’t normally and that means people were driving buses that don’t normally drive buses and on and on and on. I really appreciate that and don’t take it for granted,” Morawski said.