Citing the Arkansas Constitution's requirement for the state to offer students an adequate education, state officials said Wednesday that most schools must offer in-person instruction five days a week during the school year that starts later this month.
Schools closed abruptly in the spring near the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
"This is not a change in our stance at all since March when the governor made the announcement to close schools for on-site instruction," Education Secretary Johnny Key said.
"We have said since Day One that the plan for the fall is to come back and have school on-site.
"We had been made aware that some districts were making plans that were for fewer than five days [a week], and we felt like that clarification was needed today to make sure that districts understood we do have a state responsibility," he said.
Also on Wednesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson named Jose Romero as the state's health secretary, elevating him from the interim status he had held, and announced a plan to test all of the state's prison inmates for the coronavirus.
The Department of Health also issued guidelines allowing community and school bands and choirs to resume practices and performances, with requirements for participants to wear masks even while singing or playing and for all performances and practices to be held outdoors.
The developments came as the state's count of coronavirus cases rose by 912, the fourth-highest one-day increase since the state's first case was discovered on March 11.
The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 18, to 508.
The number of patients hospitalized with covid-19 fell by 10, to 516, while the number who were on ventilators rose by five, to 106.
The statewide total of cases since the pandemic began rose to 46,293.
The number of cases that were considered active rose by 46, to 6,937, as 848 Arkansas were newly classified as having recovered.
While it has been increasing for the past several days, the number of active cases remained below the peak of 7,167 on July 20.
The mandate for in-person classes was outlined in a "clarification" memo issued Wednesday by the Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The memo requires school districts to offer on-site instruction each day when classes are normally in session.
For most districts, that's five days a week, although some operate on four-day-a-week schedules.
Districts with five-day schedules that only offer "on-site student-teacher interaction" on four of those days must be open on the fifth day "for students to participate as needed or to access needed resources for instruction, interventions and therapy," according to the memo.
Similarly, districts that provide only three days of on-site interaction must be open for the other two days for students to participate or access resources.
"School districts not affording onsite educational opportunities each day creates inequity that impedes the State from ensuring its responsibility is met" to provide an adequate education, the memo says.
Comments by Key and Hutchinson about the memo at Hutchinson's near-daily news conference on the pandemic prompted the North Little Rock School District's interim superintendent to scrap a proposal he planned to present to his School Board today for an alternate-days schedule for all students except prekindergarteners.
Under the plan, students would have been split into A and B groups.
The A group would physically attend classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the B group would attend on Thursdays and Fridays. Students would participate online on the days they were not in the building.
The interim superintendent, Keith McGee, said the district will now be moving forward with an all-virtual academy and traditional five-day-a-week schedule as its proposal.
He said he appreciated the clarification by Key and Hutchinson.
"The central office and building administration are prepared for on-site instruction (five days a week) as well as virtual," McGee said in an emailed statement. "We look forward to working with ADE, ADH, and the Governor's Office to ensure a safe, effective school year."
The Fayetteville School District will also abandon its plan to offer two days a week of on-site instruction and three days a week of virtual classes, Superintendent John L Colbert said in a news release.
The traditional learning option will now include five days of on-campus, face-to-face instruction for the fall semester, the release said.
Students can also attend school online through their school of record or through the Fayetteville Virtual Academy.
"After reviewing the initial Ready for Learning guidance from the state, our district team and Ready for Learning committee developed a hybrid plan that we felt best addressed the safety of our students and staff members while they are on campus," Colbert said in the release. "However, with today's new directive from Secretary of Education Johnny Key, we will adjust our plan accordingly, continuing to prioritize the safety of our students and staff members to the best of our ability."
The Little Rock, Pulaski County Special and Jacksonville/North Pulaski district school-reopening plans fall in line with the state expectation for five days a week of in-school instruction.
The Little Rock and Jacksonville districts are giving parents a choice of five days a week in school or a 100% virtual plan.
The Pulaski County Special district is providing three options: five days a week in school, 100% virtual or two days a week in school and three days online.
"We believe we have no issues at all," Pulaski County Special Superintendent Charles McNulty said Wednesday. "We offer the five days a week, and we offer blended and digital."
And Bryan Duffie, superintendent of the Jacksonville district, said: "We will not change anything at this point. We will use an alternating day schedule for a moderate level of response based on positive cases, but otherwise [we have the] two main options."
John Bacon, chief executive officer of eSTEM Public Charter Schools Inc., said he was seeking guidance from state officials about the need for possible adjustments at his five-campus system.
ESTEM was set to open Aug. 24 with a choice of 100% virtual instruction or with a mix of in-school and virtual lessons.
Arkansas Code 6-10-117 allows school districts to hold classes four days a week as long as they provide the number of hours of instruction required of five-day-a-week schools.
The Kirby School District has had a four-day school week this past year.
Other districts were planning the same for the coming year. England; Ozark Mountain; East End, headquartered in Bigelow in Perry County; Viola in Fulton County; Norfork in Baxter County; Western Yell County; Westside in Johnson County; and Cossatot River, headquartered in Wickes were among those in the state that have committed to a four-day week, as of early 2020.
Hutchinson has repeatedly said he expects schools to open to in-classroom instruction this year, although schools can also offer online options and can switch to virtual classes, in consultation with the Health and Education departments, in response to virus outbreaks.
After the Fayetteville district's initial hybrid plan was announced last month, Hutchinson said the district had gotten "off the track at least as to what I had hoped for."
"How do you go to work if two days, the kids are home learning virtual, because that has to have some parental supervision," Hutchinson said Wednesday. "And so if they're learning virtual, particularly the younger grades, and even the higher grades, you don't leave them there at the house alone; they have to have some supervision there.
"And so it really impacts the workflow, and that's what I've heard from the parents that are concerned about that schedule."
Arkansas Education Association Executive Director Tracey-Ann Nelson said the decisions should be up to school districts.
She said the state's "'clarification' comes during a time when the overall positivity rate remains far above what health experts say is safe to reopen."
"No one knows the value and importance of in-person learning and the myriad of other services our public schools provide more than the public school educators," the teacher's union director said in a statement.
"Unfortunately, our state is not ready to return to in person learning. Instead of using this time to plan on ways to reach the students who will need the most help in this disruptive situation, the state is now upending the plans local districts have spent months developing with educators, parents and community stakeholders."
Key said the state's response to districts that refuse to comply is "something we hope we don't have to explore."
"We have an obligation under the Arkansas Constitution," he said. "It's very clear, and it's been clarified by the courts on a number of occasions that the state has a responsibility."
He added, "The state works best when we're working collaboratively, so we would prefer not to have to worry about what the consequence to a school district is."
The rules for bands and choirs require participants and staff members to be screened for symptoms of covid-19, including temperature readings for staff members.
Musicians must stay at least 6 feet from each other, with 12 feet required for singers, flutists and piccoloists "because of the intensity of the airstream."
Although all participants are required to wear masks, even while singing, those playing wind instruments can have a slit or flap in the mask for the mouthpiece.
Flutists and piccoloists can slide the instrument under their masks.
"Bell covers" are also recommended for wind instruments.
Jessica Duff, spokeswoman for the Pulaski County Special School District, said the district has been in talks with school, state and national organizations since June in an effort to make sure the district is able to safeguard the health of students once in-person school activities begin.
She said special instrument covers have been purchased and that the district placed an order Wednesday for masks with mouthpiece slits that are specially made for band members' use in playing wind instruments.
"Luckily, this didn't totally catch us totally off guard because there had already been some preliminary work done at the district level," she said. "When [the Arkansas Activities Association] came out in late May and said that football teams could start practicing, immediately our band and choir groups wanted to know, 'What about us?' That immediately began those national discussions to try and figure out next steps on that side."
Dustin Barnes, a spokesman for the North Little Rock School District, said discussions haven't started yet on how the district might work within the requirements.
"Since this is new, it just came out this afternoon and we were watching along with everyone else, it's not like we had a head's-up or like we kind of expected this," Barnes said. "We watch every day to get the latest information just like the public does."
The requirements do not apply to intercollegiate activities.
"We recommend following the same guidelines as schools and communities but this does not have the strength of a directive," Alisha Lewis, spokeswoman for the the Education Department's Higher Education Division, said in an email.
Hutchinson said that 10 members of the Arkansas National Guard will be deployed to assist in the inmate testing effort.
He said inmates at 10 of the state's 19 prisons have already been tested.
"Our goal is to have 100% of our inmates tested by the end of the month," he said.
More than 4,000 state prisoners -- over a quarter of the Department of Corrections' population -- have contracted the virus, the highest rate for any state prison system in the nation, according to statistics gathered by the Marshall Project. At least 32 prisoners have died after testing positive.
As of this week, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Murphy said, the department has carried out 9,458 tests.
To finish testing the entire system, as well as staff members and residents of centers of the Division of Community Corrections, Murphy said, another 9,500 tests will have to be conducted.
The results of the new testing plan could force the state to divert testing resources if new outbreaks are discovered, she said.
Asked about Arkansas' distinction as having the highest rate of prison cases in the country last week, Hutchinson said the numbers were likely the result of the large amount of testing already done in the state.
However, testing data tracked by the Marshall Project shows that Arkansas' testing numbers ranked in the middle of states with similarly large outbreaks.
Some states, such as New Mexico, Texas and Michigan, have already carried out mass testing on their entire prison systems.
'AN EASY DECISION'
Hutchinson said Romero, 65, has "a national reputation for his work with infectious diseases" and called his appointment "an easy decision."
"His vast knowledge of viral infections has been integral to our decision making as we have refined our response to the pandemic," the governor said in a news release. "His years of work within the state's medical community will allow a seamless transition as he assumes this important role."
Romero called his appointment "an extreme honor."
"I consider it right now the pinnacle of my career," he said. "This is not where I expected to be, but it's a wonderful opportunity to have an impact on the health and well-being of the citizens of Arkansas."
Before being named interim secretary in May, Romero had been the Health Department's medical director.
He was director of the pediatric infectious disease section at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children's Hospital from 2008 until May 31 and was director of clinical trials research at Arkansas Children's Research Institute from 2008-19.
Health Department spokesman Gavin Lesnick said Romero still sees children at the hospital.
Under a contract with UAMS that runs through June 30, 2021, Romero earns $334,687.50 a year, Health Department spokeswoman Danyelle McNeill said.
His appointment must be confirmed by the Board of Health, she said.
Romero replaces Nate Smith, who was hired as deputy director for public health service and implementation science at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The cases added to the state's total on Wednesday included 149 in Chicot County, where at outbreak at the Delta Regional Unit in Dermott has infected 157 inmates and five staff members.
The other counties with 20 or more new cases were Pulaski County with 79, Sebastian County with 51, Washington County with 42, Mississippi County with 35, Garland County with 29, Craighead County with 28, Saline County with 26, Pope County with 24, Ashley and Crittenden counties with 21 each, and Benton County with 20.
Hutchinson said the state's count of cases among jail and prison inmates increased by 158. Such increases can reflect new cases as well as ones that were added earlier but not immediately classified as coming from a jail or prison.
Cases from prison outbreaks also sometimes don't show up in the state's total until days after the test is conducted, after information from laboratory reports is entered into a state database.
At the Corrections Department's Wrightsville complex, the number of inmates listed in a Health Department report as having tested positive increased by 115, to 359.
The report also listed 15 residents and three staff members at the Booneville Human Development Center as having tested positive.
Meanwhile, the Corrections Department said a 14th inmate at the Ouachita River Unit in Malvern had died of the virus.
The inmate, who was in his mid-60s and serving time for unlawful possession of firearms, died Wednesday at CHI St. Vincent-Hot Springs, where he was undergoing treatment for covid-19 symptoms, the department said in a news release.
Information for this article was contributed by Stephen Simpson and John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Mary Jordan of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.