Hutchinson Stands by School Plan as Groups Cite Virus Worries


LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ governor on Tuesday stood by efforts to reopen schools next month, despite concerns raised by pediatricians and the Little Rock teachers union about moving forward with in-person classes as coronavirus cases continue rising.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state remains committed to reopening schools late next month, after he delayed the start of the school year for two weeks to give districts more time to prepare. 

“There’s a very strong commitment that we need school, that we need to go back to school,” Hutchinson said. 

Arkansas’ coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have surged over the past several weeks. The Health Department on Tuesday said at least 34,655 people have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 728 confirmed cases since Monday.

The Arkansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said Tuesday it can’t support resuming classes next month, citing a high rate of positive virus tests in some parts of the state and a lack of standardized policies and resources for preventing its spread.

“These factors suggest that opening all schools to in-person learning may not be the right choice at this time,” the group said. The group issued several recommendations, including stronger requirements for masks in K-12 schools.

A new statewide mask mandate took effect on Monday, but Hutchinson’s order includes an exemption for children under 10. The group also said school districts need clearer guidance on how to socially distance.

The Little Rock Education Association has also raised concerns about the reopening plan and on Monday proposed a phased in opening that would begin with online instruction. Little Rock's schools are currently under state control.

Hutchinson said teachers had valid concerns that still need to be addressed, including how they would be compensated if they have to quarantine at any point during the school year. 

“Let me emphasize that this is something again that is 30 days out," Hutchinson said. “That gives us time to do a number of things, working on answering some of the questions raised by the teachers. Secondly, it gives us a chance to do better in our number of cases and our positivity rate."

The Health Department said 6,998 of the state's cases are considered active, meaning they don't include people who have died or recovered.

The true number of cases in Arkansas is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick. 

The department said 374 people have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. The number of people hospitalized because of COVID-19 rose by 17 since Monday to 488.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

A state judge on Tuesday also dismissed a lawsuit that sought to force the state to allow concern about contracting COVID-19 as a valid excuse for voting absentee in the November election. Pulaski County Judge Wendell Griffen said the three voters suing the state had not alleged they had applied or denied an application for an absentee ballot

Hutchinson and Secretary of State John Thurston have said fear of contracting the illness was a valid excuse, but the lawyer for the three voters had said a formal order on the issue was needed. State law currently only allows absentee ballots due to illness, physical disability or the voter being unavoidably absent.

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