COVID-19 concerns rise as school districts prepare for Fall semester

Education

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – With the rise in COVID cases, attention is back on schools as districts finalize plans for the coming Fall.

The biggest debate surrounds what to do about masks, with Arkansas schools no longer having the option of issuing a mask mandate. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics released new recommendations Monday morning, urging all school-aged children to wear a mask in class, regardless of immunization. But for schools in Arkansas, to wear a mask or not is a choice left up to the students and their parents. 

Legislation was passed in April that prohibits any state or local mask mandate, including those in public schools. Regardless of the wishes of the school or school district, they cannot require students to wear masks in class. 

“Really all we can do is recommend,” explained Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore. He’s been finalizing the district’s plan for the fall, waiting on final recommendations from health experts before signing off on what schools will do.

He warns that with COVID cases still on the rise, not everything will be “back to normal” for students this year. 

“I think we all probably felt like going into the fall, we’re going to have a different experience,” Poor said. “But I don’t think that’s our reality.”

Like Little Rock, school districts across the state are still determining what the plan is for the fall, with mask mandates no longer an option and a COVID spike leading into a school year. In addition, the 12 and up requirement for vaccines further complicates the equation. 

5 Central Arkansas school districts (North Little Rock, Little Rock, Pulaski County Special, Benton, and Bryant) were asked what their plans were for this coming semester, and all said they were still finalizing things. Three said they were still waiting on CDC and ADH guidelines to make the final call, and two said they were conducting meetings with school leaders and educators this week. 

The North Little Rock School Board recently voted to make masks optional. Poore says for his district, he’s encouraging their use amongst students and staff. 

“We know we’re going to push vaccines,” Poore said. “We know we’re going to do everything we can to encourage people to wear masks.”

But for families like the Nicholson’s, they’re glad the mandate is over and parents have a choice in what their kids wear. 

“I think that’s a good idea,” Colby Nicholson explained when asked about ending the mandate. “I didn’t really like the idea of him having to wear it, but I’m glad that we have the option now.”

With both the use of masks – and vaccinations – up to individual families, school officials are doing everything on their end to stop the spread, and hope families can work together to keep kids safe. 

Poore said LRSD will be conducting a survey to see how many families would send their kids to school with a mask, and says the district is also ramping up efforts to get staff and families vaccinated. 

For those who don’t wish to risk in-person classes, Poore says the district’s virtual classes will remain, with students able to decide semester to semester which path they would like to take. 

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