Fort Smith Public Schools voted Monday (Jan. 10) at a called board meeting to reinstate a mask mandate for 30 days or unless the district falls to 49 or less cases per 10,000 residents before that time.
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 the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI). The district is now in the purple category, which indicates 100-199 infections per 10,000 residents, according to ACHI, which listed 125 new infections in Fort Smith Public Schools Jan. 8, up from 44 Jan. 3.
The board voted four to two, with Susan McFerran and Troy Eckelhoff voting against the resolution, in hopes of curbing absences of students and teachers who have to quarantine because of exposure to someone testing positive to COVID-19 was the Omicron variant of the virus sweeps through the state. Board member Matt Blaylock did not attend the meeting.
ACHI issued a report Monday stating that in the face of the “immediate threat posed by the explosion of the omicron variant across Arkansas communities,” it was calling for short-term actions including implementing mask requirements for all staff and students in Arkansas schools, virtual instruction for schools in the purple or pink zones; sheltering in place for seniors, families with unvaccinated children and families with members who are immunocompromised or at risk because of health conditions; and suspension of public interactions or implementation of virtual options where possible on the part of municipalities, businesses and houses of worship.
“Because of the highly infectious omicron variant, COVID-19 is raging uncontrolled across our state,” said ACHI President and CEO Dr. Joe Thompson. “Unfortunately, we need to endure some temporary disruptions in our daily lives so we can stop the virus’ spread.”
A record 226 Arkansas public school districts, or 97% of the state’s 234 contiguous school districts, have COVID-19 infection rates of 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 district residents over a 14-day period, ACHI reported Monday. The previous record for school districts with 14-day COVID-19 infection rates of 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 district residents was 201, which was reached last January and again in August.
As of Monday, there were 198 total positive COVID cases in Fort Smith schools, 49 of which were staff and 149 of which were students. By comparison, the district’s numbers were 40 total, with nine staff and 31 students, on Dec. 22. Dr. Terry Morawski, FSPS superintendent, said there were 341 students in quarantine Monday, with 108 of those students being in close contact with a COVID positive person in school and thus requiring quarantine.
According to new Arkansas Department of Health guidelines, those exposed to someone with COVID but have been boosted or completed the primary series of Pfizer of Moderna vaccine within the last six months or completed the primary series of Johnson and Johnson vaccine within the last two months and both parties have been wearing a mask, must wear a mask around others for 10 days and test on day 5 if possible. They do not have to quarantine.
“At this point and continuing to monitor the variant as it is, I do truly have concerns about staffing our schools and our district departments. If things continue the way they are, it’s not unlikely that a school over the district will have to go virtual at some point due to employee absence for being sick or quarantined,” Morawski said.
Not only do employee absences affect the ability to teach students in person, substitute shortages can affect the abilities of child nutrition and transportation. If there are 55-60 absent in child nutrition will keep it from operating all kitchens and can lead to the need for virtual learning. If seven bus drivers are absent, it would demand changes to bus routes and 13 absent would make bus service impossible, Martin Mahan, deputy superintendent, told the board.
“Masks are part of the quarantining requirements, … and both students and staff are removed from school, removed from the learning environment, removed from their jobs, creating quite a bit of disruption because of those rules, and masks are part of that. And it is also important to me to keep schools open as long as possible and as much as possible. So action that can be taken to help keep schools open, keep students in school and keep employees at work, I am in support of that,” Morawski said.
Board member Dalton Person said virtual school should be a last resort.
“We should do whatever possible to avoid that. Masks will reduce the amount of quarantine,” he said.
Along with masks, FSPS made campus operation changes to help control the spread of COVID. Visitors are only allowed on campus with an appointment; field trips are on hold; facility rentals are on hold; and staff meetings are being held by Zoom where appropriate distance cannot be maintained, Mahan said.