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Cases up, more schools in Arkansas go virtual

Virus sidelining staffs, forcing districts’ shift, officials say by Jaime Adame | December 11, 2020 at 7:00 a.m.
FILE — A third-grade student studies on a Chromebook computer at Mary Mae Jones Elementary in Bentonville in this November 2017 file photo.

The number of active cases of covid-19 in public school districts soared Thursday, rising above totals seen before Thanksgiving, and consequently several school campuses announced shifts to virtual instruction.

"We don't have enough staff. It has to do with adult quarantines, and it's all covid-related," said K.K. Bradshaw, assistant superintendent for the Conway School District.

The district's Ida Burns Elementary School is shifting to virtual instruction next week, while at least two other school campuses across the state Thursday made similar changes.

Bradshaw said Thursday that other schools in the Conway district remained open for face-to-face instruction.

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In public schools statewide, active covid-19 cases increased to 2,789, according to a report released Thursday by the state Department of Health. Three Northwest Arkansas districts topped the active cases list: Springdale School District with 160; Rogers School District with 116; and Bentonville School District with 81.

The total was an increase from the department's Monday report, which listed 2,205 public school covid-19 cases.

In mid-November, active cases in public schools reached a total of 2,559 -- more than double the number at the start of the month. The total dipped around Thanksgiving.

The latest rise comes as new daily covid-19 cases soar to new highs for the state. The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement reported Thursday that 113 school districts -- roughly 40% of all districts -- as of Monday had seen 50 or more new coronavirus infections per 10,000 residents over the previous 14 days.

Peake Elementary School in Arkadelphia announced Thursday that it would shift to virtual instruction beginning today.

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"Due to the number of staff and student positive cases and quarantine, we are unable to find enough substitutes and must pivot to virtual instruction," Karla Neathery, superintendent for the Arkadelphia School District, said in an email.

Late Wednesday, the Trumann School District announced in a social media post that its elementary school would switch to a "blended learning" method of instruction "due to a high number of staff members in quarantine." The change took effect Thursday and is to last through today.

Greene County Technical School District, based in Paragould, now has two campuses that have shifted to virtual instruction. The district's junior high announced Thursday a shift to virtual learning through Tuesday.

Superintendent Gene Weeks said that earlier in the week the district's middle school shifted to virtual instruction, which will extend until Thursday.

The plan is for the middle school students to return for one day of in-person instruction before a planned virtual day and winter break, Weeks said. The idea is to "check on those kids, their progress" after several days of virtual instruction, Weeks said, as well as meeting in-person to go over student questions "to try to get them answered."

Weeks said he expects to have enough staffing for the junior high to return to classes Wednesday.

Revised guidelines allow people without covid-19 symptoms to quarantine for 10 days. Depending on test results, the quarantine period can be reduced to seven days.

"Hopefully that will help with the asymptomatic ones," Weeks said.

Fox Meadow Elementary, part of the Nettleton School District in Jonesboro, announced that today and Monday it will shift to virtual instruction "due to a large number of faculty, staff, and students under required quarantine."

At Clarksville Elementary School, the fourth grade is shifting to remote learning for the rest of the fall semester, the school announced Thursday. The last day of the semester is Dec. 18.

"We've had a couple of staff members that tested positive, and unfortunately we had some close contacts in that same grade, with some other staff members," said Superintendent David Hopkins. "We're at a point now where we don't have enough staff members to cover the absences that we've got."

CORRECTION: The superintendent of the Greene County Tech School District is Gene Weeks. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported his last name.


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