After nearly an hour-long discussion in a special-called meeting Tuesday, the Arkadelphia Board of Education voted unanimously to require students to wear a face covering while inside buildings across the school district and while riding a school bus, at least until the September board meeting, when it will be re-evaluated.
The decision comes just days before the 2021-2022 school year begins, on Monday, and as school boards across the state are making the decision regarding mask mandates.
Three health care professionals — family practitioner Dr. Shelly Bray, Dr. Kristen Brandon of Baptist Health Medical System and Beth Hasley, school district nurse — offered statistics and professional opinions on recent COVID-19 cases and fielded questions from the seven-member panel.
The resolution includes language that gives Superintendent Karla Neathery the authority to modify the mandate on a moment’s notice as state officials grapple with the subject.
Brandon pointed out that the latest stats for Clark County included 128 active COVID-19 cases, with a total of 40 deaths, and added there are 2,600 active cases throughout the state. The state’s healthcare system, she said, is “completely out of resources” and said that local critically ill patients have been sent out of state for hospital beds.
The mask mandates will mean students, faculty and staff — regardless of age or vaccination status — will be required to wear a face covering while indoors on campus. As far as outdoor activities are concerned, those who are unvaccinated or in crowded areas are urged to continue wearing a mask.
Board member Gina White, playing the “devil’s advocate,” asked Brandon about the number of active cases not equaling 1 percent of the county’s population. “I’m getting calls for masks and against masks,” she said. “The people against masks are saying, ‘How do we let them play football, when they’re closer than they were in a classroom, but we’re making them wear a mask in the classroom?’”
Brandon’s replied that, with school about to begin, “We’re about to bring a lot of people in close quarters” and that the numbers could “spike exponentially.” She reiterated that there is no room in hospitals and added that the local hospital isn’t equipped to handle children in intensive care.
Board member Blake Bell pointed out that students involved in extracurriculars are “almost getting an ultimatum to get vaccinated whether they want it or not. You’re almost taking that choice away from the individual family by holding that over their head.” He inquired whether the Centers for Disease Control is “trying to force its hand” and noted that vaccinated people are still catching COVID. “What do we do as a district?”
Brandon said her opinion was to encourage vaccinations for anyone eligible.
Bell, whose children are of age to receive a vaccine, said many families have younger children. “A lot of these children’s safe place is school,” he said. “When they walk in the first thing we tell them to do is put a mask on.” He added that, from a safety standpoint, encouraging vaccines is the “right thing to do. But as the Board of Education, we have to balance learning (with) health and safety.”
“Nothing about this is easy,” Brandon replied. “We have to prioritize what is best for them. I think that’s where we are right now.” She said students need to wear masks and/or get vaccinated so they can stay in school.
Board member Clark Tennyson questioned the number of beds available in the event there were a spike in cases.
Bray said the risk to children is still low, “but anything we can do to reduce the risk is good. Also, you’ve got to think about the health of the community.” Bray pointed out that children can pass the virus onto their parents. “We’re seeing 30- and 40-year olds” catching COVID, Bray said, adding that some of those patients lack health insurance. “It ruins families.”
Bell said, “We need to handle this as much as an emergency situation as we did last year.” Asked about the Delta variant of COVID, its potential spike in cases and at what point will students be sent home, the school nurse said she was still waiting on the state’s guidelines to make that decision.
“From my standpoint,” Hasley said, “last year I think probably too many kids went home across the state.” Hasley said that, in her opinion, masked students should be able to stay in school unless they are symptomatic. “It’s the best way to keep our kids in school,” she said, later adding that the state will be providing masks to every school district.
White, a local attorney, inquired what school districts surrounding Arkadelphia are doing about face coverings. While the Ouachita School District is encouraging its students to wear masks, Gurdon and Bismarck schools are still in talks about the decision. It was noted at the meeting that the School Choice deadline has passed, and that the list of mandating districts is growing.
Last year, Hasley said, the entire Arkadelphia Badgers football team was sent home after a COVID outbreak, but that there was no spread in Band. “The main spread was in the classroom,” she said, noting that Goza Middle School — the newest campus in the district — had the fewest number of students sent home.
There was also discussion regarding mask plans for this year’s football season. Hasley pointed out the AAA has yet to release any guidelines pertaining to attendance or masks, suggesting the district wait to see what that entity suggests prior to making a decision.
Neathery asked Hasley about the percentage of faculty and staff who were vaccinated according to a district poll. Hasley said 83 percent responded that they were vaccinated, and that 7 percent didn’t want a vaccination.
White asked which campus held the most cases.
Hasley said there were “a lot of cases at (Arkadelphia High School). They’re out of school together” and, despite seating charts and other measures to control the spread, “they’re teenagers: they’re going to congregate.” Peake Elementary School had the most cases, according to Hasley. “Some of that was because the younger kids were being quarantined and their parents worked there.” As for Perritt Primary School, the virus spread “a little more” once it started. Goza Middle School, she added, had the fewest cases.