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Searcy superintendent stresses COVID-19 vaccinations, says spike causing 'similar conversations' as last year

New Searcy School District Superintendent Dr. Bobby Hart can’t require students to get COVID-19 vaccinations, but he said Monday that he wanted to stress the importance of them for those 12 and older.

Hart was superintendent of the Hope School District in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the governor closing schools. He said the district started planning for its re-entry probably around April 1. “That was a good thing, I think we did it well and I think Searcy did it well.”

However, after completing a full school year during the pandemic, Hart said districts are “having some of those similar conversations, trying to outline some of those plans” with COVID-19 back on the rise.

“We have seen the numbers creep up really in the last 10 to 15 days,” Hart said. “We have seen the numbers grow and the attention has been turned toward it. ...”

He said it is forcing districts to do things like “going to back to what the original plan was as far as distancing, such as that.”

“It is frustrating as an educator because it is just a little deflating that a lot of your time is devoted to things that you don’t really have control over and you can’t fix,” Hart said, “but it’s just like anything else from violence to drug use or whatever, our first and primary responsibility is to keep kids safe, teachers and faculty safe so that is the way we look at it. Let’s focus on what we can do to mitigate the circumstances.”

First and foremost, he said the district wants “to encourage folks to vaccinate. That is the one surefire way to help protect yourself and protect your children, to get those that are old enough to get the vaccine, to get them vaccinated. Those that aren’t old enough to receive the vaccine, we as a district are still going to encourage them to wear a mask, and that’s for students and staff and everybody. It makes common sense. It’s just safe.”

With school starting Aug. 16, there is not the luxury of much time to get vaccinations done, he said.

Beyond vaccinations and trying to socially distance as much as possible, Hart said sanitizing will continue and the ventilation systems will be a concern, trying to increase and improve them.

However, the district is still waiting on COVID-19 guidance for the next school year from the Arkansas Department of Education. Hart said some guidance was expected last week but it did not come, but he has been told that it is on the governor’s desk for final review and approval and the district is expecting to hear something soon.

Part of the guidance the districts are waiting for, he said, concerns the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. He said he believes a great use of that money would be to have some paid leave for staff members that are forced to be quarantined, but he said “right now that is not a surefire way to guarantee that. One of the things we are all waiting for is some guidance from the state on whether we can do that. That’s scary for teachers because that is just another way it is going to have a physical impact on them.”

“As soon as we can get a group setting together, I want us to have some conversations about what the public thinks is necessary,” he said “We have been allotted about $7 million in ARP [American Rescue Plan] or ESSER money. It is the third round of that money. We need to have some public conversations about what are the ideas that parents, faculty, staff and the community, how do they all want to invest that in terms of how to protect the kids and address the learning loss. We want to be proactive and listen to what our community has to say.”

Hart mentioned that the ACT Aspire scores are down statewide, and “we saw similar numbers to what everybody else in the state saw.”

“We saw a decrease mainly in math,” he said. “Reading scores went backwards as a district 2 to 4 points, which is not bad but it is not the direction to go in. What do you expect? You are testing groups of kids who hadn’t really received face-to-face normal instruction in close to 14 months.

“I am hopeful that this can help us all in this profession to back away from the importance we place on that particular test. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to be held accountable for our jobs, but we are putting a whole lot of time and energy and human capital into those scores. The main thing they can predict is the financial security of the home that that kid comes from. You can look and see that statewide, 60 percent of the kids in the state of Arkansas are on free and reduced lunch and about 55 percent or more are reading below grade level.”

Asked if he felt COVID-19 also affected students socially, Hart said, “Oh sure. We’re social animals and we’ve got to interact with one another, that’s how we learn, that’s how we grow, especially children.”

“Many of our children have not had that opportunity in a structured setting,” he said. “One of the things that schools teach besides the three R’s is how to work with and how to get along with and function with groups of people. I think we are going to see three or four crops of kids, school years, grades that are going to be impacted for quite some time not just academically but socially and emotionally.”

However, he said that children “are extremely resilient. They are going to rebound and as soon as we can take the focus off that ... I think the truth about it is the kids were so resilient that they handled the masking and all those things far better than the grownups did. They will figure it out.”

Unity Health sticking with CommUnity of Caring for 25th anniversary of outreach event

Unity Health’s annual day of outreach turns 25 years old this year, even though this is only the second year it will be known as CommUnity of Caring.

Unity Health decided to keep the name it adopted last year during the COVID-19 pandemic instead of reverting the community outreach day for the uninsured and under-insured to its former title, A Day of Caring, according to marketing coordinator Jessica Skinner. The event will take place from 9 a.m.-noon Saturday.

“The nature of the event has changed, obviously because of COVID,” Skinner said. “We were A Day of Caring for years and last year with the drive-through process, we kind of transitioned into the CommUnity of Caring name and protocol there.”

Skinner said Unity Health is “adding some other services back” that were not available last year because of the limitations.

“Our non-medical portion will be the drive-through process at the same location, the Unity Health Annex (across from the emergency room), 3004 Hawkins Drive,” Skinner said. “We are going to have personal care items. It’s a family essentials bag this year. It will include dish liquid and personal care items and we will have an age-appropriate book we will be giving to the children, working with the White County Literacy Council.”

Nonperishable grocery items also will be given out.

“New this year is some farm fresh produce from our local farmers. We are super excited about that,” Skinner said.

For those who may be new to the outreach effort, Skinner said there is no sign-up for it. All they have to do is “drive up to the annex,” she said. “They will just drive through the parking lot, kind of in a serpentine [pattern] and they will pop their truck. It will be contactless at that point. We will put the grocery items and their family essentials and resources in their trunk and then they will exit that area.

“They can get car seat safety checks and then get information on the medical [portion of the day] and go right down the road to Searcy Medical Center to get their medical services over there,” the south entrance at 2900 Hawkins Drive.

Workers at CommUnity of Caring will be wearing masks, Skinner said.

“We have dental this year, COVID vaccinations, COVID testing, medical exams, physical exams. We will even have ARcare there with HIV testing and home kits and hepatitis C testing,” Skinner said, “so when they [those being served] come in there, they will have a screening and they will be required to wear a mask and socially distance and all the normal protocols we follow inside our hospitals and medical clinics.”

The fact that initial dental screenings are returning this year, Skinner said, is “super exciting because they always are an important issue for our community and we are really glad to have them back.”

Unity Health Marketing Director Brooke Pryor said those receiving the medical and dental screenings will fill out some minor information because there could be follow-up needed. “We do have to collect their personal information to a small extent,” she said.

When it comes to the medical exams, Skinner said there are going to be eight exam rooms and there are other exam rooms for different things like pediatrics. “We can serve quite a few people at a time. It would be hard to put a number” on how many will be served with medical exams.

Skinner said the outreach effort “takes month to put together.”

“Really, almost by the time you end one [CommUnity of Caring event], you start planning ahead and thinking ahead for the next one,” she said. “It is a huge community process. There are so many individuals and groups and churches in the community who work together to make it happen.

“It is really hard to put a number on the number of volunteers because we have Junior Auxiliary who will bring so many people to prepare the lunch and then ASU [Arkansas State University-Beebe Searcy campus] nursing students will come to put together the bags, all of those bags for us, all day on Friday. It’s a huge group effort.”

Community sponsors are also a part of making the event run, Skinner pointed out.

Skinner said there also is “a great group of our resident physicians who are very involved in this. It’s really a great experience for them just to be able to reach out to the community with their services.”

While haircuts were once a part of A Day of Caring, they were not offered last year because of COVID-19, but Skinner said she has been talking to people at the Searcy Beauty College who will be having a free haircut day each month. “They are going to get that information to us and we are going to hand that out to them.”

“In this location and in this process, it’s hard to do haircuts because of the drive-through setup,” she said. “We will have information for people to get about those free haircuts.”

Skinner said part of Unity Health’s mission is “to improve the quality of health and well being of our communities that we serve and CommUnity of Caring is just another great way we do that with the compassion that we value so much. It’s just who we are and it’s just what our people do. Our nurses get excited about volunteering and the whole community get excited about this event, so we are honored to do it.”

“I get really excited about it,” she said. “In planning and putting this together, I think, ‘What do these families need? What can we do for them and how can we help them the most?’

“We often take a lot of things for granted and the needs that we have in our community are often times beyond anything that we really think about. So to be able to being part of something that can touch the lives of people who really have these deep needs is a great honor really to be able to do that and I think all of us who work on this get excited every year. The volunteers get excited to work on it and be part of something good that can help so many people.”

1920s hotel, wooden rail car spared for six more months by Bald Knob City Council

A state representative is hoping to clean up a Bald Knob hotel that dates back to the 1920s and a wooden rail car and get them on historic registers. But he’s been given only another half-year by the Bald Knob City Council to get it done.

In a special meeting last Thursday, the council approved giving Rep. Craig Christiansen six more months for the rebuild, with Council member Johnny Hodges also including that Christiansen should give the council updates every 60 days on the progress of the projects.

Councilwoman Mary Lou Smith chastised Christiansen on the lack of progress before now, saying “those properties were condemned Dec. 9th of 2019. You have done nothing, Craig. You boarded up the hotel but that is all.”

Christiansen said, “I know that it is a problem and an eyesore; we are doing our best.” He gave the council some background on his efforts and where things stand.

“The wooden rail car is the last surviving car off the Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad as far as the passenger equipment goes,” he said. “It was brought over here a number of years ago and volunteer help kind of dissipated.

“We had a gentleman who spent a great deal of time taking the front half of the car apart. We stored a lot of that stuff for archives so we can use it as a pattern and then he developed some significant dementia, and so now we have the documents that show the measurements that we needed but now he is no longer involved with the project.”

Volunteers are a little hard to find now, according to Christiansen, who said “he grabbed a couple of folks” and they would like to get started on the projects in September.

Focusing on the former Bald Knob Hotel, across from the depot, Christiansen said before the pandemic, he and his group started dealing with the Arkansas Register of Historic Places “before we could go on to the National Register.” He said the the hotel and the rail car are both items of consideration for the Arkansas register but “the both have to be rebuilt a bit before they can be considered. The rail car has been rebuilt several times.”

Christiansen gave his health as a reason the project has been stalled as well as some lack of funding that occurred and his wife being sick.

He said items have been taken out of the hotel and the ground floor of it has been secured, adding that no transients can get into it now. “We have put up cameras. We have put up security lighting. We started to take some of the rotten wood out from the inside. That will accelerate over the next two or three months because I have some folks that would really like to see that preserved.”

Christensen said five students were vandalizing the hotel building several years ago and after they were caught, they turned into student volunteers. They “took the back room off of the back of it and cleaned a lot of stuff out of it that needed to be done. I told them once that that is restored, we will put a bronze plaque in there with their names on it. My five grew to eight. We kept them throughout the summer ... .”

There are three construction companies that Christiansen said he is talking to about working on the project. He said first, the roof would have to be stripped off and the wood replaced. The entire second floor also would need to be replaced.

“It can be done. It needs to be done because that’s something that is part of Bald Knob’s history,” he said. “We have ourselves to sell – this is a great town with good people and we want people to come here. We want to do a Depot District. We have talked about that for several years.”

Christiansen said with him being in the state Legislature, he was gone for five months because of COVID-19 and his wife’s autoimmune disease that would not let him come home. “So I spent six nights at home, if you count the time from two days after Christmas until the end of April. We were told to just treat it as a deployment and we did.”

“I am trying to do a lot of good things for the city. I want to see Bald Knob succeed. ... I can tell you you will see dismantling progress starting in September and you will see what we are trying to do go forward.”

Smith, who was on the Bald Knob Planning Commission in December 2019, questioned Christiansen on several aspects of what he presented. She said, “You told us that night at the meeting you had a town that was going to take that rail car, take it apart and take it out of here.”

Christiansen responded, “They decided the men that wanted to do that were too old. The found a caboose that was in great shape and they procured that and so now we have to follow through in removing it. All of that languished around for a number of months and then COVID.”

“Well, I know it did,” Smith said.

Christiansen replied, “I did not receive an official condemnation letter on that.”

“You did,” Smith said. “Because when we filed this resolution in the courthouse, it was immediately after you got the letter.”

Christiansen said, “I will accept that, but I did not see it as such.”

Smith told Christiansen she also wanted “to call your hand” on something else he said.

“This Arkansas historical preservation – I have called the secretary of state and the mayor called him, too – they have never heard of this and according to the computer, there is only one person in this and that’s you, the president,” Smith said. “How can you say this is a committee?”

Christiansen said, “I can say it’s a committee because I started it.” Smith said, “Nobody remembers but you.”

Christiansen said, “They have heard of me because you have a letter in that packet right now from” the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. Smith responded, “I also have a letter here from the Arkansas historical preservation that says they never heard of the property. ... I called the gentleman. He told me there had been nothing every discussed with the Arkansas historical society concerning this property and I said, ‘Well, you send me that in black and white; this is the letter.”

Christiansen told Smith that “we did not talk to the National Register, we are going through the Arkansas Register. We are going through the state because the process is different for the hotel and rail car because of their condition than it was for the depot.”

Smith said the longer the rail car and hotel sit there, the worse their conditions get. She told Christiansen that he had mentioned that the Union Pacific Big Boy 4014 is making a stop in Bald Knob on Aug. 27 and “that rail car needs to be gone before then.”

“We are trying to get people to come here to see that we are doing something,” she said.

Christiansen said, “You are going to see progress,” but Smith asked him when. “You had told us that in December of 2019.”

Christiansen told Smith his wife had been ill with eight hospitalizations and two surgeries in 12 months. “But you own the hotel, you own the rail car,” Smith said. “You are responsible.”

She said there are residents who don’t mow their yards and their property is condemned and he owns this property and it is no different.

Smith asked Christiansen how long the wooden rail car has been in Bald Knob and he said since 2007. She said, “That’s 14 years. It sits there and has deterioriated.”

Christiansen told Mayor Barth Grayson that six months was “doable to see the rail car down to its frame.” He said on the hotel, it would be hard to say because of COVID-19 and the delays it has put on contractors doing work. He said by January, the rail car could be to the mayor’s satisfaction so it could be rebuilt.

“That is a wooden frame that has 10 feet of metal frame underneath it on each end,” he said. “That car was built in 1894 by the St. Charles Car Co. in St. Charles, Mo.”

Hodges told Christiansen that if he “was dead serious about it [the projects], you should be able to convince us that you are doing something about it [in 60 days].”

Christiansen said, “I can guarantee that.”

Free civil legal assistance to be offered Friday at Rural Justice Day at Beebe City Hall

The Center for Arkansas Legal Services started a new free event this summer that will be held in Beebe on Friday, according to Communications Specialist Amber Quaid.

Anyone facing civil legal issues like divorce, eviction and power of attorney for a family member can get help from the nonprofit law firm at the Rural Justice Day being held from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at Beebe City Hall, 321 N. Elm St., Quaid said. She said it is open to anyone, not just residents of White County. Walk-ins are welcome but she strongly encourages calling the helpline at (501) 376-3423 to schedule an appointment and get a spot saved.

Quaid said the Center for Arkansas Legal Services is holding the “Rural Justice Days in the smaller communities over the whole summer, May, June, July and August.”

“We just want to get out to these communities that are underserved, but are spread apart,” she said. “We still wanted to give them the opportunity to know we are here, we offer these services for free, so we kind of host a whole-day event. We reach out. We find a community that is interested. We find a place that is interested in hosting it and then we just advertise and we have an outreach member who goes to talk individually to every community member she can find, just to let people know we are here, we are coming to your community, you can come talk to us, one on one.”

All of the staff attorneys from the Center for Arkansas Legal Services will be in Beebe for the event, Quaid said.

“For the Rural Justice Days, we focus a lot on divorces, family law, estate planning,” she said. “A lot of people have trouble getting the titles to their homes. With the flooding going on, there is so much available to people with the FEMA money but they just don’t even realize that they have to have the title of their home first.

“Powers of attorneys with COVID has been huge, especially with medical directives. You want in writing somebody to say, ‘Hey, you can make these medical decisions for me.’ We are really big on criminal record sealing on non-criminal, civil, legal issues. People can get a divorce eventually, of course there is a lot of paperwork that goes with the legal proceedings, but they can start the paperwork process and what is involved in it. A lot of people think you need to have the other person there to sign but that is not true. It is basically our legal team talking to people one on one, letting them know the ins and outs of any legal question that they have.”

Quaid said the drive to get to one of the legal offices may be an issue for some, so they want to “go to the people and be there for them.”

When asked how many they want to serve through this event, Quaid said “I always say hundreds. Realistically, that probably wouldn’t happen because of the timeframe that we have. We say 10 to 3 but we stay later. We try to help as many people as we can. If we can’t help you that day, we will get your name and number and call you back and start a process.”

The staff attorneys who go to these events love being involved, Quaid said. “This is why they work for CALS. They love helping low-income individuals get the legal help they need. So many people have this idea that the situation that is happening to them is happening because they are poor, and that is not the case. It is a legal issue that we can help you with and help you get out of. It is not just because of the circumstances that you are in.”

Quaid advises getting to the event early because she said by 11 a.m. it usually gets really busy.

The hot topic issues now, according to Quaid, are evictions and scams, “debt collectors who are basically misinforming people. We are trying to get everyone there to talk about any civil issue you want to talk about.”

There are bilingual members on staff, she said, and one will be available in Beebe.