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School heads wary of rising virus cases

by I.C. Murrell | July 17, 2021 at 2:48 a.m.
Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Andrew Curry (from left) meets high school football assistant coach Prestard Jordan and players Earnest Harris (74) and Lamar Jefferson (99) on Thursday before a Rotary Club of West Pine Bluff luncheon. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

Arkansas' sharp uptick in positive covid-19 cases is leaving two of Jefferson County's school superintendents concerned, but both still favor the return of in-person learning with the new school year just a month away.

Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Andrew Curry said he is keeping his school board updated on any information coming from the state health and education departments regarding the latest rise. The number of covid-19 cases during the 2020-21 academic year forced area districts to shut down campuses numerous times and employ virtual learning, which school leaders say is not as effective as face-to-face interaction between teacher and student and can lead to students falling behind.

"The students' and staff's safety are a top priority," Curry said. "I am watching the cases and I am seeing the daily increases in the number of cases."

Face masks are optional for both students and employees in the Watson Chapel and White Hall districts for the upcoming school year, which begins Aug. 16. White Hall Superintendent Doug Dorris said he noticed some loss of learning in his district during the past school year, but not as much as officials feared.

"I was very proud of our teachers and students for the effort they put in," Dorris said. "It was a trying year for everyone."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson relaxed laws governing the wearing of face masks on March 31, leaving related policies to school districts and other local entities.

"Right now, we're still going to follow the guidance of the Arkansas Department of Health and the governor," Dorris said. "We're waiting to see what he has to say. Our plan is to do what the governor says. It's going to be optional as far as masks are concerned."

But that could change, Dorris warned.

"If we have to go virtually, we could, but we don't plan to go virtual right now," he said. "We are all alarmed. Maybe we can take the vaccine, and we can stop this thing a little bit."

The number of covid-19 cases in Arkansas rose by 1,476 Tuesday, setting a one-day high for the state since Feb. 5, then by 1,309 Wednesday and by 980 Thursday. The number of covid-19 patients in hospitals has taken a sharp rise to 669 as of Thursday.

Four people died from covid-19 Thursday, bringing Arkansas' death toll related to the disease to 5,981.

The sharp increases in covid-19 data are linked to the delta variant of the disease, which health officials describe as more contagious as the initial strand, and come as Arkansas' vaccination rates among the entire population still lag at 43% for one dose and 35% for full inoculation, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero established a 70% full vaccination rate for herd immunity during a March news conference.

As an incentive, the White Hall district board approved a $200 payment for each staff member that is vaccinated, following an announcement Hutchinson made May 20 regarding bonuses for state employees.

Curry said he will ask the Watson Chapel board to issue a payment for district employees at a special board meeting July 26, adding districts could choose whether to issue the bonuses. He also echoed a similar plan for the district regarding in-person learning.

"I believe the best quality of learning is with a highly qualified teacher in a classroom, and while virtual is not ideal, we can adapt and overcome it if necessary," Curry said.

Attempts to reach Pine Bluff School District and Friendship Aspire Academy officials were unsuccessful.

On Tuesday, five of the seven White Hall School Board members, along with Dorris, sat together on the board dais for the first time since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Board members had met at the district's administration building, but were socially distanced.

The day before, Watson Chapel held its first board meeting since Curry took on the job July 1. That board has publicly convened at its table since March of this year and previously held socially distanced meetings at the Watson Chapel High School library.

Curry said he is open to forums to inform Watson Chapel students and staff members about the benefits of vaccination. Persons as young as 12 can take the Pfizer/BioNTech-manufactured vaccine, while those 18 and older can take the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson brands.

A meet-and-greet for Curry and new assistant superintendent LaDonna Spain is set for 6:30-7:30 p.m. July 22 at the high school auditorium. The meeting is for patrons to hear the leaders' vision for the district.

"We have had several clinics over the summer with one more coming up in late July for a second dose," Curry said. "We have had clinics for both adults and students. ... I strongly urge all staff and students to get vaccinated. We all want a return to normalcy, and vaccination is the way forward."

Dorris said clinics for both White Hall students and parents not yet vaccinated would be July 22 from 1-4 p.m. for the first dose and from 2-5 p.m. Aug. 12 for the second.

The White Hall district has spread the word about vaccination through social media, texts and its website, Dorris said.

"We're encouraging everyone to go ahead to get the vaccine," he said. "Some are apprehensive, but the science shows that the vaccines are effective. We're not going to mandate, but we hope to have a large turnout."

White Hall School District Superintendent Doug Dorris, center, listens to a question along with President Dr. Raymond Jones (left) and board member Scott Ray during a board meeting on Tuesday. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
White Hall School District Superintendent Doug Dorris, center, listens to a question along with President Dr. Raymond Jones (left) and board member Scott Ray during a board meeting on Tuesday. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

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