When the school year ended later than usual in June for area schools, most were happy to put what they thought and hoped was a unique year behind them, and start back with less of a pandemic in the fall. Little did they know they would be starting back school in three short months with more of a pandemic than ever before, yet less tools to help keep their students safe. At Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club's weekly meeting Wednesday, three local superintendents — Stephanie Nehus with Hot Springs School District, Shawn Higginbotham with Lake Hamilton School District and Shawn Cook with Lakeside School District — discussed their plans and hopes for the upcoming school year.
"It’s just so important during this time to remember kids are still kids," Cook said. "They want to live, they want to have fun, they want to play at recess, they want to be in their activities, and we’re trying to do the very best we can with the limitations we’re given."
The limitation Cook pinpointed was the inability to require masking due to current legislation that is under review.
Nehus said her district will follow guidance from the Arkansas Department of Health and Education as far as masking goes, but can do no more unless something changes with the law.
"Ultimately … we have to be role models for our students, so it’s really hard to break the law and mandate masks when we’re not allowed to do," she said.
"So it’s a big challenge and we’re in a lose-lose right now because you have families who want them and you have families who don’t, and you have teachers who want them and you have teachers who don’t, and so we are working very hard to get all of our protocols and all of our plans out to our families."
Another challenge Cook pointed out was children under 12 unable to get vaccinated, or for older children who have chosen not to get vaccinated, must be quarantined if they are exposed to COVID-19.
"Quarantine’s a lot bigger deal than people think," Cook said. "I had one of my administrators and his son miss 50 days last year from being quarantined and he never had COVID.
"I want you to think about that; a lot of our children, when they go home from quarantine they don’t have anybody to take care of them. They may have a single mom that’s working a job or two and they may not have grandparents to keep them, so I worry about our kids when they’re quarantined."
All supers were in agreement that on-site learning is the best method for the students.
"It’s important that our kids are there," Nehus said. "We have high poverty in our district, and our children are just in much better care when they’re with us getting their education. We’re able to feed them, we’re able to take care of their social, emotional needs and we’re able to make sure that they’re educated to the best of their and our abilities."
All supers were also in agreement that students eligible to be vaccinated should be.
"We (HSSD) are offering $200 incentives for our adults to be vaccinated, and we are also going to be releasing very soon an incentive for our students — our students are going to get a $100 Amazon gift card for being vaccinated," Nehus said. "So anybody 12 and older, we’re encouraging that."
Higginbotham said the schools were able to keep their students safe last year, which is their "number one priority," but they don't have the same tools this year.
"If we have the tools to do it, we will be able to do it again, but this year we don’t have the same tools," he said. "We don’t have the mask mandate, we don’t have any mandate, we just have guidance, so we may not be able to achieve the same results.
"But that is our hope: that we can have school on-site for 178 days through the end of May without interruption for those kids who can be there."
However, in these continued unprecedented times it is understood why some parents may not want to put their children in school, and therefore virtual options are offered.
"When the school year ended for us on June 4th, there was a collective sigh of relief," Higginbotham said. "We were ready to throw the masks away, we were ready to get this behind us — things have changed considerably since then.
"We intended our virtual option to be very limited to only students who had serious medical health conditions that would prevent them from being in the regular classroom environment. … But with the growing concerns and the safety concerns that have been expressed to us by parents, we’re probably going to have to expand our virtual offering a little bit more beyond than what we had originally planned to do."
All-in-all, ready or not here comes another school year in the midst of a pandemic, and aside from getting your eligible children vaccinated, Nehus offers this advice to parents:
"We need our parents to be positive. We know this is a challenging time, and we know everyone is not going to be happy with what we’re doing, but we need our parents to be positive and support the schools and reach out to us as adults, and have those conversations if they have questions or concerns."