75 COVID-19 ‘situations’ already in Fort Smith Public Schools, one campus temporarily closed

School has not started and Fort Smith Public Schools has already had to close one campus and has had 17 cases of COVID-19 reported. FSPS Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker told the school board Monday (Aug. 10) the district had to temporarily close the Adult Education Center because they had one positive case and 11 close contacts who are now in a 14-day quarantine.

There were a total of 20 staff members from the school working from home Monday. The building is being cleaned thoroughly and will reopen Tuesday, Brubaker said. He also noted that at one of the campuses, the district had 10 custodians who are on quarantine “due to a case.”

“All told there have been a total of 75 COVID-19 situations tracked in the last month that we have worked with (Tracie) Mathis, our point of contact to document with the ADH (Arkansas Department of Health),” Brubaker said.

The Arkansas Department of Education’s Response Levels for On-Site Learning, the state protocol for handling the COVID-19 pandemic, requires all school districts have a district employee appointed by the superintendent who is responsible for contacting the School Hotline when a confirmed positive is identified within the district. The Point of Contact for Fort Smith Public Schools is Mathis, an FSPS nurse.

The district has had 48 students and employees quarantined during the past month. Nine employees and eight students have tested positive for the virus during that time.

Brubaker said 22% of FSPS students have selected the virtual learning option for school in the fall, and that enrollment in kindergarten is down about 200 this school year as compared to this time last year.

“That’s after counting the students who are enrolled in the virtual option,” he said.

Board Member Talicia Richardson asked if Gov. Asa Hutchinson was aware of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Fort Smith school district. He said the district was making all the necessary reports to the state.

“I want to commend the administration and staff who have been working around the clock, seven days a week for the last month with this COVID situation. Seventy-five instances that had to be tracked and monitored, and that’s before kids are even in school. That is amazing to me,” said Board Member Dalton Person. “I will make a plea to our legislators and to the Department of Education in Little Rock. This is not a viable method on the trajectory that we are currently on, and I can only speak for Fort Smith and Sebastian County, where we are well over 10% positivity rate. … And we have seen what has happened before students are even at school.”

As of Monday afternoon, Sebastian County had 524 known active cases of COVID and 20 deaths.

During the meeting, the board also discussed the possibility of renaming Albert Pike Elementary School. FSPS administration recommended to the board at the meeting that the school be renamed.

“In June 2020, Albert Pike Elementary School in Fort Smith appeared in an Education Week article as one of six Arkansas schools named for a confederate figure. Documented activities and statements of General Pike as described in the attached resolution do not reflect the commitment of the school and the district as a whole to ‘treat all people with dignity and respect’ as articulated in the Vision 2023 Strategic Plan,” Brubaker read from the recommendation, noting that the districts equity and minority recruitment committees met jointly in July and the question about the name of the school was discussed.

“The consensus of the group was to recommend to the board that the campus be renamed. … If adopted, the resolution would also direct the administration to form a committee charged with developing a renaming process and timetable to submit to the Board for its consideration. The goal would be to have a new name in place for the 2021-2022 school year,” Brubaker read.

Albert Pike settled in Fort Smith in 1833 and taught school while he studied law. He opened a law practice in 1834. He later served as a general in the Confederate Army. The proposed resolution brought up that Pike joined a petition in 1858 to “expel all free blacks from the State of Arkansas” and wrote in 1868, “We mean that the white race, and that race alone, shall govern this country. It is the only one that is fit to govern, and it is the only one that shall.”

It stated those facts do not fit will with the Vision 2023 Parameter 2 that states, “We will honor relationships and treat all people with dignity and respect” and Parameter 1 that states, “We will base decisions on what is best for students.”

Board Member Dee Blackwell said she had heard from a parent before the meeting concerned over what having a school named after Pike represented to the students who attend the school.

“(Renaming the school) is a very difficult subject,” Blackwell said. “We’re talking about elementary school. We’re talking about a place where our students should be safe and secure. I think that should be our priority.”

Board Member Wade Gilkey said he had concerns that the issue of renaming the school was being used to push a political agenda.

“To me Albert Pike is not a good man and we do not need to have a school named for him. I understand he was a big deal in 1850, but this is not 1850. What concerns me the most is this committee is using this issue to further a political agenda. That concerns me,” Gilkey said.

The board voted to table the matter and bring it to the Aug. 24 regular meeting where the public would have the opportunity to comment on the resolution.

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