In 2020 Arkansans across the state felt the impact of COVID-19, especially our students. Schools went virtual; many kids were left behind, and our teachers felt abandoned by our state. Things started looking up this year when we got our first vaccine shipment. But vaccine hesitancy runs deep in our state. As a result, Arkansas is seeing a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases.
This new surge of cases has many Arkansans worried about the 2021-2022 school year. Are our students safe? What about our teachers? One clear protective measure is mask requirements for schools. But have you heard of Act 1002? This new law bans mask requirements in the state, excluding healthcare facilities. Essentially our lawmakers tied the hands our school districts when it comes to students’ safety.
New Variant Sparks Concern
As students enjoy their last full month of summer vacation, the Delta Variant wreaks havoc on the state. The new variant is thought to be 50 percent more transmutable than previous versions. Although current vaccines protect against the Delta, states like Arkansas with low vaccination rates are at high risk of spreading Delta and becoming sicker.
Governor Asa Hutchinson addressed the new variant in a media briefing on July 6. He celebrated hitting the one million mark for vaccines administered, but warred about the Delta variant.
“We were winning this battle in April… we’re losing ground in July,” said Hutchinson in response to increased cases of the virus. Along with the Governor, Arkansas Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero stressed the importance of adults getting vaccinated to help protect younger populations who aren’t eligible to get the shot.
“The Delta variant is penetrating into our childhood population. We cannot vaccinate our children at this point, because we do not have a vaccine for them. The only way to protect them is to protect them by immunizing yourself and having a cocoon around them that doesn’t allow the virus to reach them.”
Dr. Jose Romero said at a media briefing in regard to the rise in COVID-19 cases in our state.
Teachers Take Another Hit
While at the media briefing, Hutchinson asked that employers provide options for their employees, such as paid leave for COVID-19. But just a few days before the briefing, the Little Rock School District sent a letter to teachers letting them know that paid leave for COVID-19 would not be effective for the new school year. This decision was made during a spike in cases, and as a result some parents are considering not sending their kids back to school.
The district was receiving funding from the state under the state emergency declaration which ended in May. By law the district had to end the COVID leave, but they said there is potential for board action on July 22. Basically our state lawmakers made sure that any safety precautions would be null and void for the new school year.
“We don’t want to violate any laws because our governor has said public institutions, we cannot mandate certain things, we cannot do certain things that were allowable during the emergency state of emergency.”
Vicki Hatter, Little Rock School District Board President said in an interview with KATV.
What Does this Mean for Students?
At the media briefing on July 6, a reporter asked Hutchinson if the state was working with the Department of Education to create a health and safety plan for the 2021-2022 school year. Hutchinson pointed to his community conversations plan, saying the only way to ensure safety for our kids is for our vaccination rates to go up. Hutchinson called this a “cocoon” for students, but offered no solid solution. He did not specify if his office was collaborating with the Department of Ed.
Hutchinson also gave an honorable mention to the new law that prohibits schools from enforcing a mask mandate. This legislation was yet another power move made by our lawmakers. Instead of using their power to pass bills that would benefit our students, they removed health safety measures our schools had in place– yet another example of lawmakers seeking solutions to a nonissue and causing problems as a result.
Our leaders have successfully eroded public confidence in the vaccine. We hope the “community conversations” the Governor is planning will help restore public trust before it’s too late. We have just over a month before the new school year starts.
Vaccines are available to anyone 12 years or older. If your child is old enough, get them vaccinated. If you don’t know where to go, visit the Arkansas Department of Health website to find a vaccine clinic near you. The health and safety of our children and teachers is on the line. We have to work together to protect Arkansas Students.