Governor Hutchinson said he was excited about resumption of in-person school next week. There will be no retreat, it seems clear.
He said more local data will be provided for school districts to react to local situations. He also said the Education Department was working on additional education options depending on risks in the surrounding communities.
The new data include a safety rating by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement that departs from White House yardsticks on what constitutes a dangerous level of COVID-19 infection. Virtually all of Arkansas is a dangerous red zone by White House standards. The new map depicts Arkansas as much safer.
The new rating system, illustrated by the map, is aimed at measuring risk in school districts, based on the geographic areas from which the school districts draw. The areas are ranked on per capita COVID-19 cases. To date, 19 districts have more than 50 infected people per 10,000 population, not including prisoners or nursing home residents. (These are the areas marked in red on the map at the top.)
These rankings aren’t necessarily readily applicable to a specific school because some districts draw from multiple communities, some with pockets of infection and some without.
Arkansas seems to be putting its thumb on the scale and making things appear safer than they actually are. States that have more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population (10 per 10,000) per week are considered “red zone” states by White House coronavirus task force standards. In Arkansas, 10 per 10,000 in a week is depicted as the second safest and most districts are at that level or, in many cases, much worse, with 19 at 50 new infected people in a week.
The daily COVID-19 count
Arkansas recorded 549 new cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, for a total of 54,765. Hospitalizations held steady at 499. Deaths rose by 10, to 641.
The top counties for new cases the last 24 hours: Pulaski, 51; Sebastian, 35; Jefferson, 29; Garland, 24; Crawford, 22; Craighead, 21, and Mississippi and Pope, 20.
Total tests in the last 24 hours: 6,898. He said the state has recorded more than 10,000 antigen tests this month, but revealed no information about how many tested positive.
The governor cheered flat to declining numbers in recent days in new cases, hospitalizations and active cases. He also said the positive testing rate had dropped below 10 percent the last three or four days.
Education Secretary Johnny Key said the state was providing at least one protective kit to each of the 1,000 schools in Arkansas. It will include a thermometer, gloves, sanitizing wipes and some other items.
He also released new guidance for changes in school depending on rate of infections in a district.
He claimed school districts will be in control of modifying programs as needed. Little Rock, of course, is exempt from local control. Johnny Key calls those shots, including preventing Little Rock from having an alternate-day school schedule, such as Fayetteville and others have been allowed to use.
In response to a question, Key reiterated schools would not be permitted to go all-virtual.
The Q&A session
Could school districts go all-virtual or have fewer days of regular class if a high rate of infection is found in the surrounding community. Maybe, the governor said. But only after consultation with the state.
But Key made it clear it was not an automatic option. It could be made only after consultation with the Health Department and Education Department. It would be viewed as a “very severe” reaction, Key said.
Asked about repercussions if information surfaces about districts failing to follow masking and distancing rules. Key said the repercussion could be an end to district activities, such as music or sports. He said the state would encourage district leaders to do the right thing in response to such reports. Hutchinson said punishment of anyone who took pictures and circulated them would be up to the school district.