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Several school districts in White County say either wear masks or go virtual

Although some school districts in White County haven’t decided yet what their ultimatum is going to be if students refuse to wear masks when school returns Aug. 24, the ones who have say that “students are going to have to conform.”

When the Beebe School Board discussed its plans for returning to classes a couple of weeks ago, it included that those who refuse to wear masks will be switched to virtual learning. Although the district has changed its policy concerning mask styles, Superintendent Dr. Chris Nail said forcing students whose parents won’t make them wear masks to go online is still in the plans.

“Unless the governor changes his mandate, we have no choice on that,” Nail said.

In the Searcy School District, information provided by School/Community Coordinator Betsy Bailey states that “students who refuse to wear a mask or face covering at school or at a school function under this policy shall be required to leave the school campus consistent with Board Policy 4.19 on student conduct while riding a bus.”

“Students may remove masks and face coverings on a case-by-case basis for specific instructional needs and other activities, as determined by a teacher, in which case the teacher will utilize appropriate social distancing measures or students may be exempted from this policy due to special behavioral or individualized needs as determined by the Director of Special Services or the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction,” the policy states.

White County Central Superintendent Dean Stanley said his district will use “verbal reminders [when a student refuses to wear a mask] but if it becomes a recurring problem with a student for noncompliance then we will have them go virtual.”

Pangburn Superintendent David Rolland said “with the mandate, you have to wear a mask when social distancing is not possible. We will warn students but eventually they will have to conform to that [wearing a mask]. We have a virtual option as well that they can do. They are going to have to conform.”

Bald Knob, Riverview and Rose Bud have yet to determine if students will have to go to virtual learning if they refuse to wear masks. The Daily Citizen was unable to reach Bradford Superintendent Ann Stevens.

Bald Knob School Superintendent Melissa Gipson said she doesn’t have a firm answer yet but will provide information concerning mask enforcement when the district has it ready to announce.

Riverview School Superintendent Stan Stratton said if a student continually refuses to wear a mask, the district will have a conference with the student’s parents, but the district has not made a decision about what the district would do next if the problem persists.

Rose Bud School District Superintendent Allen Blackwell said Rose Bud’s plans are to “highly recommend that we follow the Department of Health guidelines.”

“We are not planning on it becoming a discipline issue,” Blackwell said. “If a student absolutely refuses – at this particular time our teachers and staff are going to be asked to recommend students to wear if they cannot be socially distant – if they just are going to refuse then we are going to put them in a position where they just aren’t going to be close to others. The principals and I feel that we can keep this from becoming a discipline issue. We have not made the decision to threaten them to put them in virtual school.”

The Beebe School District already has had some issues with COVID-19, with a second student-athlete having tested positive Thursday.

“Mr. Chris Ellis, our point of contact, has called the Department of Health and what we’ve done is, we’ve canceled all athletics until Monday to give us time to go in and deep clean all athletic facilities to make sure they are safe and we will resume athletics on Monday,” Nail said.

Asked if anyone else who may have been in contact with the athlete would have to quarantine, Nail said, “I believe there is some but I can’t release how many that is; we have some.”

Earlier this month the district reported another athlete testing positive for COVID-19. All facilities and equipment were sanitized after that report, according to Nail.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Friday his intentions for high school football, volleyball and cheerleading to be held this fall, with teams being allowed to hold no-contact drills in helmets Monday-Friday. It is possible that contact drills will be allowed beginning Aug. 10, but an advisory board is being established to determine that and make recommendations about fall sports.

While Beebe is trying to get a handle on having two of its student-athletes test positive for COVID-19 before those team drills began, the district also had to handle some backlash it received for initially determining that students would have to wear masks with “no writing on them,” other than Beebe Badgers.

“We really thought we were helping parents by providing the masks for the kids, but I guess a lot of them already purchased them,” Nail said. “We were just trying to take the burden off of them. Obviously, we were wrong. We got some good feedback, which is great.

“We’re glad that everyone seems to be happy about the masks now. As long as they meet dress code, like a T-shirt, they will be fine. If a child wanted to monogram their initials on their mask, that would be fine as well.”

Fire safety at airport

ABOVE: Searcy firefighters spent Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Searcy Municipal Airport at the invitation of airport Manager Roger Pearson. Battalion Chief Andrew Bogan talks to a group of firefighters about the importance of safety at the fuel island.

LEFT: Searcy Fire Department Battalion Chief Andrew Bogan conducts an airport safety session to keep firefighters in the know about how to deal with different situations that may arise at the Searcy Municipal Airport. Bogan said it is always good if they can have eyes on a situation before there is an incident. “We do this with every commercial building in town,” Bogan said. “We have a pre-fire plan and every building and business has a little different hazard that we work around.” Bogan said at the airport one of the bigger issues is fuel.

Searcy Fire Department Battalion Chief Andrew Bogan conducts an airport safety session to keep firefighters in the know about how to deal with different situations that may arise at the Searcy Municipal Airport. Bogan said it is always good if they can have eyes on a situation before there is an incident. “We do this with every commercial building in town,” Bogan said. “We have a pre-fire plan and every building and business has a little different hazard that we work around.” Bogan said at the airport one of the bigger issues is fuel.

Airport preparedness

Taking 'thump, thump, thump out' on U.S. Highway 67

Construction workers have been taking the “thump, thump, thump out” on U.S. Highway 67/167 below Beebe to Judsonia as part of improvements to the road that are expected to take until April 2022, according to Arkansas Department of Transportation resident engineer Casey Chastain.

Work on the southern part of the project began in December and Chastain gave an update to The Daily Citizen this week.

“There are numerous things that are happening, like on the concrete pavement itself,” he said. “We are patching up the broken up slabs, we’re patching the concrete pavement and then after that they are doing a diamond grind on the pavement itself,” he said.

Chastain said drivers who have gone through the construction probably have noticed the machines set up with diamond saw blades.

“There’s like around 55 of those saw blades per foot; there’s real thin spacers between those saw blades,” he said. “If you’ve noticed, there’s a definite improvement in the ride. That takes that thump, thump, thump out.’”

With the bridges on the highway, “we are pouring new approach gutters and rails and we’re attaching an updated style of guard rail on to these old bridges,” Chastain said.

“This old stuff was built around 1970,” he said. “The bridges actually started in ’68 or ’69 – the bridges from Beebe up to the [Searcy Municpal] Airport. It was paved and opened up in 1973 from Beebe up to the airport, Exit 42.

The main contractor, Emery Sapp and Sons Inc., is doing the concrete patching and the diamond grinding. Beverly’s Construction is doing the approach gutters and slabs at the bridges. Another subcontractor is doing the asphalt paving. Emery Sapp and Sons Inc. was contracted for the project at $20,889,159.

The concrete crew, if it gets too hot, will move to night work, Chastain said. The other workers work at a slower pace and take frequent breaks, he added.

As part of the work, the shoulders are going to be built up and repaved.

“The shoulders have been in bad need of maintenance,” Chastain said. “It was opened up to traffic in 1973 and then they opened it in 1975 to stretch to Searcy to Race Street and then in got opened up in 1977 to Bald Knob. That kind of lets you know how old this is. It’s time to do something with it.

“This is not an interstate highway. I mean, it is built as an interstate standard but it is not an interstate until it gets hooked up in Missouri. It’s a U.S. Highway so it doesn’t qualify for the big rehabilitation pot of money.”

He said the funds for the highway work comes from the gas tax and they have different pots of money set up for highway depending on whether it’s an interstate or not. Interstates get the larger pot of money, so what we’re doing out here is probably a fourth of the cost of a total rehabilitation or reconstruction like we did up in Bald Knob in two phases back in ’01 and in 2013 we did another job that didn’t get finished until 2015.”

The northern part of the project from Bald Knob to Newport is expected to be finished next spring, Chastain said.

Unity Health weathering COVID-19-related costs

Unity Health has not applied for any federal provider relief money, but has received some funding from the Department of Health and Human Services as part of the relief stimulus package to help hospitals in handling COVID-19-related expenses and revenue losses, according to Steven Webb, president and chief executive officer.

“All the acute care hospitals that accept Medicare/Medicaid got some of the HHS funds is what we call them,” Webb said. “That helped offset any COVID expenses that we have and it tried to offset any revenue [losses] that we had because when the state shut down our ability to do elective surgeries, they did that across the state and it had an negative financial impact on health care systems.”

Webb said White County Medical Center got some HHS money in April and also got some in May.

“The governor did work with the hospital association and set aside some money for cover expenses for all hospitals in Arkansas and that money we think we may be able to get in September that was from the governor’s $1.2 billion he got for the state,” he said.

As far as how much HHS money Unity Health received, Webb said it is still being calculated and Unity Health had to attest that it was going to use all of that money for cover expenses for lost revenue.

“They are still coming out with the guidelines on how that will shake out and we have until the end of the year to figure it out,” Webb said.

Unity Health also has applied for some grants to help with costs, Webb said.

“The timing of this was really strange,” he said. “In the first part of March, we hired a grant writer, then COVID hit. She had been really diligent in trying to apply for grants for relief, but not any of the federally qualified payment funds.”

In a recent column in The Daily Citizen, Congressman John Boozman, R-Ark., wrote about the struggle of some rural hospitals in the state and the need for provider relief funds. Webb said a lot of those hospitals were struggling before COVID-19.

“There were 18 hospitals that were on the verge of closing before COVID-19 hit and then there’s another 26 that only stay open because they get support through tax from either their city or their county, so health care in rural Arkansas has been a challenge, especially in small communities,” Webb said.

He said he thinks what sets Unity Health apart from those hospitals is that it has a very good leadership team and a very conservative board that “has been very good stewards of the resources we had.”

“They have been very thoughtful and mindful about the expenses we have and the amount of debt that we have,” Webb said. “We have very low debt level and when you don’t have debt and debt services you have to cover, it allows you to be a lot more agile when it comes to responding to things like this.

“I was picking up the paper every day and seeing hospitals across Arkansas since March have done layoffs and furloughs and really had to do a lot of drastic things to be able to continue to operate. We didn’t lay off one single individual at Unity Health. We haven’t in our 53-year history; we’ve never done a layoff and we want to continue to do that, taking care of our associates first.

“We are in such a good position because they care about this organization. Just as an example, we are seeing everybody else lay off their workforce up to 10, 15 percent all around us. We’re continuing to keep our folks here and not laying them off. In fact, we went out of our way to take care and figure out ways for them to benefit in these economic times.”

He said the hospital also has been “really fortunate” in its supply of personal protective equipment.

“We started looking for PPE and trying to be prepared in January before most people in Arkansas ever heard of COVID. So our team has been very aggressive in trying to get our PPE,” Webb said. “They were clawing and scratching and grabbing and trying to get everything we needed to take care of patients.

“Some of our vendors have been able to get us the supplies we need and some of them haven’t. Some of our masks have to be fitted to the individual size and we have fitted people and those masks haven’t been able to come in but fortunately we had another brand or vendor that did and we’ve been able to make that transition the first time so we’ve never run out. Our team here has done a really good job of being conscious of the limitations on supplies across the country and have been good stewards of what we have.”

Webb also praised the community for the great support, mentioning that there were times when the hospital got low on PPE and “someone from the community would come up and say, ‘Hey, we just have these N95’s (masks) laying around and we want to give those to you.’ That happened multiple times from a lot of different people at the right place provided us with needed PPE.”

Regarding lessons learned from COVID-19, Webb said every day it is changing and it’s a lot of evolution with people now calling Unity Health for advice. Some Mayo Clinic affiliates are even calling Unity Health for advice about testing for COVID-19, he said.

“It has been a learning process and I have been on the phone with Arkansas hospital CEOs, with national hospital CEOs, there is a lot of sharing going on,” he said, “and the thing I take back from this is that I’m just go grateful for my team and the work that they’ve done.

“We can do testing like nobody else in central Arkansas can do testing. We can do about 200 tests a day in house; 24-hour turnaround time. We have had other health systems reach out to us. There’s two other health systems in north central Arkansas that we’re doing their testing for because they can’t do it in-house and we can do it in-house so we’ve just been very fortunate. We are still growing every day.”

Addressing how hospital visitor policy has changed since the start of COVID-19, Webb said, “We were very conservative with our visitor policy. It is really hard to tell a loved one they can’t come up to a room with their loved that’s in the hospital but that was just something we had to do at the beginning to protect our staff and to protect the patients we’ve had at the hospital. As we’ve understood more and talked to other hospitals, we’ve loosened out visitor policy, so we’re allowing visitors every day but with restricted hours.”

He said visitors are allowed from 3-6 p.m.

“We’re just trying to find that balance and I think a lot of lessons we’re learning is how do we provide that level of care and that level of comfort and that level of support for our patients and still try to protect our patients from this virus,” Webb said. “I just can’t talk enough about how good our team did.

“There is a lot of stress around this so our behavioral health team came and said, ‘Hey, we’ll do a free emotional support line.’ We’ve got licensed counselors who will talk to people, just give them our phone number and they can call and talk to us and we’ll help them through the anxiety of this. It has been more that the physical health that Unity Health has been able to respond to. It has been the emotional health.”

Another lesson Webb learned, he said, is that people need to seek their health care services even in a pandemic.

“There’s no textbooks on how to deal with a pandemic. We just saw people who suffered at home when they could have been taken care of at the hospital,” he said. “That is what we’ve been trying to encourage people to do is to come back to the hospital. Don’t let your congestive heart failure or pneumonia or any of the chronic things that you deal with get to where they’re not manageable. If we can help you. We are here to help you. We are a safe place to be.

“You go to Lowe’s, you have to wear a mask but nobody is screening you at the door for temperature or making you wash your hands or asking you questions, but when you come to the hospital, you can’t get through the door unless you’ve been screened and make sure you have no temperature and you got a mask on and you haven’t been exposed, so that’s a lesson that we learned that people need to feel comfortable to come to the hospital to get the health care service.”

Webb said he gives updates a couple times during the week on the Unity Health Facebook page and try to be transparent with the community about how the hospital is handling COVID-19.

“I think Unity Health is as good or better than any other health care system in our response to COVID,” he said. “I’m really proud of our team and I’m really proud of the way this community has supported us and helped us not only in Searcy and White County but also at our hospital in Newport and Jackson County. We’ve gotten tremendous support all the way around. I consider us to be very fortunate and very blessed.”

As of Wednesday, Webb reported that Unity Health das had a total of 296 positive COVID-19 test and 9,082 tests have been conducted. Seven in-house positive cases were reported by Webb and two presumptive in-house cases. So far, White County has had two deaths from COVID-19.

Riverview School Board chooses to divide on-campus students into A, B groups

Riverview students will only have the option to attend classes on campus two days a week when school starts Aug. 24, which drew some reservations from School Board members Thursday night before they approved the district’s plan.

Superintendent Stan Stratton promised the board members that they could look at how the plan they approved was working and reevaluate it at the Sept. 10 board meeting.

“We are living in a unique time and no plan is going to please everybody and we know that,” Stratton said. “This plan probably would have been different two weeks ago before the mask mandate from the governor.”

Before the plan was approved, Stratton explained the district’s two options. The first is that parents have the option of having their children going totally virtual. He said the district would like to give students and parents two weeks to decide if the virtual option was the right one for them. If they like the virtual plan, Stratton said the district would like to have a commitment for the semester so it could plan accordingly.

The second plan is blended learning, and the state has put out a document called response levels for on-site Learning that Stratton said the district will use for guidance.

“We kind of planned for the level of COVID that we have in our community because it’s probably not if we are going to have a positive case but it’s probably when we have a positive case, so we just need to be planning and preparing for that,” he said.

The limited response level is that students in fourth through 12th grades will be strongly encouraged to wear a face mask. Grades kindergarten through 12th on the bus would be strongly encouraged to wear a mask.

The moderate response level divides the student body into an A and a B group, with the A group attending Mondays and Wednesdays and the B group attending Tuesdays and Thursdays and everyone virtual on Friday. The days that students aren’t in class will be virtual days for them.

The administrative team during discussions “really felt like governor’s mask requirement put them in the moderate response,” according to Stratton. The Riverview staff was surveyed and Stratton said the district gave them four options of how they should start the school year. Option 1 was that they start virtual for everybody. Option 2 was that they use the A and B groups. Option 3 was that everybody starts going for five days a week, but masks are required for grades 4 through 12 with a warning received if they don’t wear a mask.

“We have to be realistic,“ Stratton said. “We live in a real world. We have to think about how we are going to handle when kids don’t wear a mask. We all know that we have some parents who are strongly against masks and we have parents that are strongly for masks, so we are trying to come up with a plan that is best for everybody.”

If students don’t wear a mask, “it is handled as a dress code violation and also if a kid gets insubordinate, then it’s handled as insubordination; all those steps in the discipline code,” he said.

Option 2 was the choice of the staff, with the A and B days. Option 1 was their second choice.

Stratton said taking this information into consideration, they decided to start out with the A, B days.

He said there were a couple of advantages to that.

“We think in most classrooms – there may be some that we can’t – we can socially distance students, meaning we can get them 6 feet apart. The other thing is, school buses, the cafeteria … now we are only dealing with half the students on a day so we are able to better spread that out,” he said. “Also, when we have that positive, instead of that classroom of 25 students that are possible close contact, it’s now only 12 or 13 students.

“The guidance we are getting from the state is if a person is within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes in a 24-hour period, regardless of whether they are wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, they are going to be identified as a possible close contact and immediately our point of contact person is going to have to notify those parents and they are going to have to go into a 14-day quarantine and then the Department of Health will follow up with them.”

Board member Jeremy Ramsey asked Stratton how the students in quarantine would handle learning during that time, and Stratton said they would go virtual.

Board member Darren Gordon said his concern about splitting into groups is that “we’re really focusing on the masks when there is other things like where are these kids going to stay three days of the week?

“There’s no option if my wife and I both work and my mother in-law can’t keep them and I feel inappropriate that she’s already had them since March,” Gordon said. “How long does she have to keep them and do I tie somebody down?

“I have called three that I can think of that are the biggest day cares and when school starts, they take zero school-aged children. ... There is no day care option.”

Gordon said he has also talked to teachers and they are apprehensive.

“I feel like I’m speaking for a lot of them that for a child to learn they have to have a set schedule,” he said. “They have to have some kind of standard . ...”

He said the district relies on the parents year after year to help the students at home, but “now we’re going to rely on them for three days, teaching them new material on technology that they probably never used.”

Board President Robyn Roach said, “We may not have a choice.”

Gordon agreed, but pointed out that Searcy, Bald Knob,White County Central and Rose Bud are doing five days a week for school.

Ramsey agreed with Gordon the kids having to learn from home three days a week would be challenging. “So we’re asking our kids to get theirselves up when their parents have gone to work for the day, get theirselves up and get to that computer and want to learn for three days a week,” Ramsey said.

Board member Owen Mobley said, “a lot of students are going to get behind in this I’m afraid. There’s no easy solution, I know that.”

Roach said, “What I would like to see every kid come to school and every one of them wear a face mask but I know that would be hard for us to enforce. If the whole nation would of wore a face mask like they should of to start with, the stuff would have gone away.”

“We will have some students whose parents will adamantly refuse they wear a mask and so that is a discussion we will have to have,” Stratton said.

Gordon mentioned that the district have virtual to fall back on. Gordon said if students didn’t wear the mask, “the virtual is there for them.”

Christy Bremer, principal of the district’s Kensett Elementary, said if you have less students at school, “you have less exposure to everyone.”

“If you have everyone there, you might go into virtual faster,” she said.

“This plan is fluid,” Bremer said. “ ... If the state changes or improves or regresses, we have an option to go in a certain direction. ... We want our students at our school but we want them safe so we are trying to look at a safe way. It’s not a long term hopefully plan, it is our current reality.”

On Friday, Riverview put a notice out to parents and guardians asking them to respond to the Parent Commitment Form for the fall semester, due back by Aug. 5. The notice reminds parents that students will have a two-week trial period to make their choice on what kind of learning they will choose.