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Arkansas schools' quarantine rule eased

Declining case numbers part of decision, Hutchinson says by Andy Davis | October 20, 2021 at 6:49 a.m.
Mya Baker, a pharmacist for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, prepares doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine during the job fair and vaccine clinic hosted by the City of North Little Rock on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at the Chamber of Commerce. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

To reduce disruptions to in-person instruction, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that elementary and secondary schools will be able to use a distance of 3 feet, instead of 6 feet, to determine who needs to quarantine after a student or employee tests positive for covid-19.

The change came after Hutchinson met with a group of superintendents last week who complained about the number people who were being required to quarantine in response to covid-19 cases.

Under the new protocol, someone who has not been fully vaccinated will be required to quarantine for up to 14 days if they are within 3 feet of an infected person, rather than within 6 feet, at an elementary or secondary school for at least 15 minutes within a 24-hour period.

"That's a significant change that will help our schools minimize the quarantining and balance that with the needs of the public health with the students," Hutchinson said.

He said the state's declining new cases numbers played a role in the decision to relax the policy.

"Clearly if you were at the height of the pandemic, I don't think this is something you would do, but as leader you have to balance the risk and the losses," Hutchinson said.

"Right now, we're having severe hardships in our schools to the students and learning loss and a lack of participation and dropping out, and that is a huge human loss as well, and a risk."

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In a statement criticizing the change, the head of the state's largest teachers' union agreed on the importance of in-person instruction, but said "it must be done safely."

"We are glad to hear the health department will be monitoring the situation closely," Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, said.

"However, it is surprising and disappointing to see this untested option being implemented while many of our districts are not using the scientifically sound option of mask mandates."

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Hutchinson made the announcement as the state's count of cases rose by 661, the eighth daily increase in a row that was smaller than the one a week earlier.

The number of people hospitalized in the state with covid-19, however, rose by one, to 461.

It was the first time the number had risen since Sept. 20.

The state's death toll from the virus, as tracked by the Department of Health, rose by 19, to 8,221.

QUARANTINE GUIDELINES

Health Secretary Jose Romero said the new quarantine guidelines will apply only to elementary and secondary schools, with a distance of 6 feet still being used to determine quarantines for colleges and universities and child care centers.

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"I want to reassure the public that we will not be neglecting to follow the cases that occur after this modification," Romero said.

[VACCINE INFO: See the latest information on covid-19 vaccines in Arkansas » arkansasonline.com/vaccineinfo/]

"If the Arkansas Department of Health sees an increase in the number of school cases, we will make a recommendation to the governor that we should go back to the 6-foot distance for quarantining."

He acknowledged the new policy involved a trade-off.

"The safest thing is to keep the 6 feet," Romero said.

"As the governor has pointed out, we are balancing the needs of public health with the needs of the student.

"Children are suffering from not being in class. They have the psychological issues. They have the learning issues, and so we think this is a safe alternative at this time."

Cabot School District Superintendent Tony Thurman, who attended the meeting last week with Hutchinson and other superintendents, called the announcement a "huge game changer in our business."

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"The best way to battle learning loss is to have kids at school, and we're seeing a large number of kids that are at school as probable close contacts that are not testing positive, and of course those healthy kids need to be at school."

Republican state Rep. Brian Evans said he served on the Cabot School Board for 10 years and decided to organize the meeting with Hutchinson after hearing about students who had been "quarantined multiple times, sometimes as many as 40 days throughout the year, due to the 6-foot rule."

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In addition to Thurman, he said the meeting included the superintendents of the Van Buren, Bentonville, Springdale and Conway school districts as well as Romero and other state health and education officials.

"I just thought it was important to get some people who really have the boots on the ground, the ones that are in the school buildings dealing with this every day, to be able for them to share from their hearts," he said.

PROTOCOL REVISED

At his weekly news conference at the state Capitol, Hutchinson also said a new protocol allowing schools to offer regular, rapid testing as an alternative to quarantines will allow students who submit to the tests to continue to participate in extracurricular activities after being near someone with covid-19.

Previously, he said, the testing option only allowed the student to continue to attend classes.

"The reason for all of this is that if you're in band, if you have extracurricular activities in music or others, this is a critical part of the young person's development, and it is something that's important in the education atmosphere," Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson announced earlier this month that the "test-to-stay" protocol was being implemented in a pilot program in the Russellville, Springdale, Cabot and Bentonville school districts.

But Thurman said Tuesday that his district decided not to go forward with the protocol, in part because of the number of students who would have to be tested.

Until the change announced Tuesday, he said, students also lacked an incentive to submit to the testing, since they would have to attend classes but wouldn't be able to participate in extracurricular activities.

He said the district will reconsider its participation in light of the Hutchinson's announcements.

"Logistically, it's going to be much easier to manage, and also you incentivize it," Thurman said.

Education Secretary Johnny Key said the Bentonville School District was also no longer part of the pilot program.

He said training will be held next week for other school districts that want to participate.

MANDATES DROPPED

Even before the test-to-stay pilot was announced, state Department of Education guidelines for schools exempted people who are vaccinated or who had infections within the past three months from which they recovered from having to quarantine unless they develop symptoms.

Students and employees also aren't required to quarantine if both they and the infected person were wearing masks.

Some districts, however, have dropped their mask requirements as the state's new cases have declined.

The Cabot district lifted its mask requirement last month for its junior high and high schools and last week for other grade levels.

Thurman said the district's School Board made the decision to drop the mandate.

"There's various reasons why that was made, but the challenge is, once it's made, you have to move forward, and we still have kids we want to keep in school," Thurman said.

"Of course, we do still highly encourage kids to keep masks on."

The state's guidelines differ from those of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommend quarantine for unvaccinated students who were within 6 feet of an infected student for more than 15 minutes if one or both was not wearing a mask.

If masks were in use, the CDC recommends quarantine if the distance was within 3 feet.

INFECTIONS DOWN

After rising on Thursday, the number of active cases among public elementary and secondary schools students and employees, as tracked in Health Department reports released twice a week, fell Monday by 261, to 1,080, its lowest level so far this school year.

The number is less than a quarter of the all-time high it reached in early September, although it remains above the number from the same point last year.

On Oct. 19, 2020, for instance, a Health Department report listed 879 active cases among public school students and employees.

So far this year, however, shifts to virtual instruction for entire classrooms, schools or districts in response to virus cases and quarantines have been far less common than last year.

Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said 33 such shifts have been reported this year, down from 134 at about the same point last year.

So far this week, only one shift, affecting a kindergarten classroom at Eastside Elementary School in Rogers, had been reported.

In the latest Health Department report, released Tuesday, the Bentonville district was listed as having the most active cases, with 51 as of Monday.

The Springdale district had the next highest total, 42, followed by the Pulaski County Special School District with 39.

Among students and employees at colleges and universities, the number of active cases fell from 152 as of Thursday to 125 as of Monday.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville topped all colleges with 20 active cases as of Monday.

FORECAST RELEASED

In their latest forecast report, released Tuesday, researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health predicted the state's cases, hospitalizations and deaths from covid-19 would continue to decline through Monday.

"The only exception to the declining trends is pediatric COVID-19 cases," the researchers wrote. "Pediatric cases are continuing to increase at a faster rate than adult cases, and are making up a larger proportion of the caseload."

They said they hoped the "trend can be brought under control once vaccines are fully approved for children under 12."

"However, if vaccination rates among Arkansas children 12 to 17 year are indicative of what to expect in children under 12, then we are not optimistic enough children will be vaccinated to control infections," they wrote.

ACTIVE CASES FALL

Tuesday's increase in cases among Arkansans of all ages was smaller by 72 than the one the previous Tuesday.

Already at its lowest level since the week ending July 7, the average daily increase in the state's case count over a rolling seven-day period fell to 562.

The number of covid-19 patients who were on ventilators fell by two, to 129, its lowest level since July 19.

The number who were in intensive care fell by nine, to 202, its lowest level since July 10.

Benton County had the most new cases, 75, followed by Pulaski County, which had 55, and White County, which had 38.

The state's cumulative count of cases rose to 507,759.

With recoveries and deaths outpacing new cases, the number of cases that were active fell by 99, to 5,853, its lowest level since July 7.

Meanwhile, at 7,255, the increase in vaccine doses that providers reported having administered was larger by 962 than the one a week earlier.

The average number of doses administered each day over a rolling seven-day period rose for the second day in a row, to 5,742.

That remained below the average of 6,864 a day a week earlier, however.

According to the CDC, 56.8% of Arkansans had received at least one dose as of Tuesday, and 46.9% had been fully vaccinated.

Nationally, 66% of people had received at least one dose, and 57.1% had been fully vaccinated.

Information for this article was contributed by Jaime Adame of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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