COVID-19 is on the uprise in Garland County due to lack of vaccinations and the two-to-three times more transmissible Delta Variant causing severe illness in younger people, and the start of the 2021-2022 school year is right around the corner.
Arkansas school districts will be required to post their Safe Return to In-Person Instruction procedures to their websites, but current Arkansas law does not prohibit mandating masking, and while vaccinations are the current best line of defense against the virus, children younger than 12 are currently not able to get vaccinated.
The Arkansas Department of Education in correlation with the Arkansas Department of Health has provided schools with guidance to attempt to minimize risk to their students and staff during this ongoing pandemic.
The following information* is guidance provided by ADE to public schools in the state:
Because many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time or are not yet fully vaccinated, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, staff, and other members of their households, especially in areas where community transmission is elevated**.
COVID-19 vaccines are the most effective strategy to protect people from getting sick and to reduce the risk of people spreading COVID-19.
Students who are ages 12 and older are now eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccination. Schools are encouraged to help students ages 12 and older, their families, and all school staff with getting vaccinated. Actions districts can take include initiating vaccination campaigns, hosting informational sessions with local medical professionals, partnering with local community-based programs, including childcare facilities, and sponsoring vaccination clinics at local school sites. Fully-vaccinated students or staff do not need to quarantine if deemed close contacts, unless they have/develop symptoms.
As updated on July 9, 2021, CDC guidance states, “consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings.”
Although masks or other face coverings can no longer be mandated in Arkansas public schools, as prohibited by Act 1002 of 2021, the CDC currently recommends the following regarding the wearing of masks in school settings:
• Indoors: Mask use is recommended for people who are not fully vaccinated including students, teachers and staff. Children under 2 years of age should not wear a mask.
• Outdoors: In general, people do not need to wear masks when outdoors. However, particularly in areas of substantial to high transmission, the CDC recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people who are not fully vaccinated.
Districts are still encouraged to continue following their screening plan for each campus and event using screening questions approved by the ADH. The value of screening is that it keeps students and staff with symptoms out of school and limits exposure. Screening usually consists of making sure a person doesn’t have a fever, as well as having him or her answer questions about symptoms and exposures.
The COVID-19 Delta variant is now the predominant COVID-19 strain in Arkansas. The Delta variant is two-to-three times more transmissible, which means that an infected person can spread COVID-19 to twice as many people as observed earlier in the pandemic.
Children represent an increasing proportion of new COVID-19 cases, including hospitalizations and severe disease. In light of the spread of this more transmissible variant (and potential future strains), ADH and ADE urge schools to maintain as many mitigation measures as possible, or risk increased spread within the school setting.
To read the full guidance provided by ADE, visit https://dese.ade.arkansas.gov/Offices/communications/arkansas-ready-for-learning.
*ADE disclaims this guidance addresses updates to the public health guidance and is based on the public health situation with COVID-19 as it is understood today. Guidance will be updated as needed if additional or new guidance is made available by the CDC.
** The transmission in Garland County has elevated from 63 to nearly 600 active cases in five weeks.