Beebe became the latest school district in White County to make face masks optional Monday, leaving Bald Knob and Bradford as the only two where masks for COVID-19 are required.

In removing the mask requirement for all students and staff on school campuses and in school vehicles, the Beebe School Board also gave the district’s superintendent the authority to reinstate a “face covering requirement at specific schools if the COVID positive rate exceeds 1 percent of the total staff and student population in that school.”

Dr. Rick Duff, one of the district’s two assistant superintendents, is serving as acting superintendent while Superintendent Dr. Chris Nail is out on leave because his wife is battling leukemia.

The Searcy School District dropped its mask mandate earlier this month, moving to checking Arkansas Center for Health Improvement levels weekly to determine whether to require masks for the next week. They are optional this week because “ACHI data indicate that the Searcy School District is below its threshold to require face coverings.”

The White County Central School District started taking the same approach earlier this month after initially requiring masks, and reported Friday that it was in the “green zone” for this week and masks would remain optional.

On the ACHI map of Arkansas school districts, a district with 50 to 99 new known infections per 10,000 residents is shaded red and a district with 100 or more new known infections per 10,000 residents is shaded purple. The color-shading of a district is based on infections among community residents living within the geographical boundaries of each school district and not on cases among school employees and students.

The Pangburn, Riverview and Rose Bud school districts did not enact mask mandates at the beginning of the school year. Bald Knob’s next School Board meeting is Monday night and Bradford meets again Nov. 1.

Before making its decision Monday, the Beebe School Board viewed a presentation on COVID-19 data that showed from Oct. 5-18, student COVID positives were at 9.5 (0.28 percent) out of a total enrollment in pre-kindergarten-12th grade of 3,393 students. Student quarantines were 30.64 (0.90 percent). Student quarantines from school exposure were 10.57 (0.31 percent). Staff COVID positives were 1.86 (.45 percent). There were zero staff quarantines.

In reference to the student COVID positives, Duff said they have dropped over the last three months from 14.21 to 9.4 and student quarantines have dropped as well. Very few of the quarantines, he said, are related to school exposure.

“It has occurred outside of school,” Duff said. As far as staff members, Duff said, “we have only had a couple of staff members. It may be that we’ve had one and another one, then they are back at school. We just haven’t had very many staff members who had to be out for positive cases.”

The motion to modify the mask mandate was made by School Board member Jason Smith, who said he would like the superintendent to have the ability to pivot back to masks if needed.

“And I would say that we say if 1 percent of that building’s student enrollment and staff combined, if we exceed 1 percent in that building, then we immediately go to mandatory masks in that building and do it on a per-building basis,” Smith said. “... We’ve got to have a threshold or percentage that we can act quickly if we need to pivot back to masks without having to call a special board meeting and having to wait 48 hours or whatever it takes to get us together.”

Duff said about three buildings have approximately 500 students plus staff “so that’s about five positive cases in a building.”

Smith said he thinks “1 percent is very conservative, very ultra-conservative.”

After the board passed Smith’s motion, board President Clay Goff said, “With that being said, like graduation night, move your tassel from left to right and get that thing [mask] off there.”

The Oct. 19 educational COVID-19 report from the Arkansas Department of Health showed Beebe with nine active cases and a cumulative total of 103. The Searcy School District had 10 active cases and a cumulative total of 201. No other public schools in the county were listed on the report, which shows schools with five or more active cases. On the private school list, Harding Academy had seven active cases and a cumulative total of 32 cases.

“The numbers of active cases in schools has been going down steadily for the last few weeks,” said Dr. Joel Tumlison, medical director for Child and Adolescent Health for the Department of Health. “As an indication, the school report from Monday showed public schools were down to 1,080 for contacts; 10 days before they were about 500 cases above that, just as a note of comparison, and that’s in line with what’s been happening in the Arkansas population as a whole – numbers have been coming down.”

He said school districts are responding to the “good news” by deciding whether they should continue their requirement to wear masks in school or not, but that’s not what the Department of Health is recommending.

“Initially when they were putting it back at the start of school, they were kind of putting it contingent on certain levels,” Tumlison said. “We would like to see schools continue to require masks in schools. We want as many people wearing masks inside schools as possible. That’s what CDC [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says, that regardless of vaccinated status and the level of community spread in schools, a K-12 setting, inside, indoors, because that’s an indoor public place, we would like to see kids and staff wearing masks, and that’s still our position because masks are a better preventative than they are a cure.

“Now ... they are a good intervention when things are getting really bad – we wear masks; they do help calm spread and slow it down and eventually can help bring it under control – but they work best as a preventive to keep those levels from getting high in the first place; that’s why we want school to continue to do it. But certainly, we understand that schools are, due to opposition, due to pressure, they are reconsidering how long they want to do that in their school if they have got a requirement to begin with.”

It is possible that a COVID-19 will be made available before long for children 5-11 to help limit the spread and effects of the virus, he said.

The Food and Drug Administration is meeting at the end of this month “to talk specifically about Pzifer’s submission of their data for 5-11-year-olds and whether that indicates it is justified and safe for young children,” Tumlison said, adding that it being approved is a “likelihood, but they still have got to meet about it and the CDC would have to meet the next week, their advisory board, the ACIP [the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices].”

“Probably the first week in November, we are going to have an answer on that and maybe even be able to start vaccinating 5-11-year-olds at that point, but we will just have to see because Pfizer is very encouraged by their data in children, but the FDA, being an independent body, need to be the one to say that, not just take their word for it. ... We are likely to have an answer for that in the next couple of weeks.”

With flu season underway, Tumlison said how it will affect things with differing requirements for COVID is “one of those unknowns.”

“There is concern that this year will be worse than last year,” he said. “Last year, flu season was very minimal and that was due to so many precautions, preventive measure being taken for COVID, there was a statewide mask mandate, everybody was wearing masks, more social distancing, less gathering, etc., so flu season was very low.”

However, he said because fewer Arkansans got it and there were “very mild cases of the flu last year, they won’t have as much leftover immunity for whatever strain is coming this year.”

“... The same prevention measures ought to work this year, the same things that we are still encouraging for COVID, should work for flu, and, indeed, we want people to get the flu vaccine,” Tumlison said. “That is the single most thing you can do best, so we certainly want people to get vaccinated. There are plenty of opportunities to get the flu vaccine right now, October is a great month to get it. We haven’t seen any significant rise in flu cases yet, but we know we are heading into the time of year when it does.”

Tumlison said “the double concern” is if flu cases go up the same time as COVID cases in the winter, “which is likely to happen at some level. Both of those things, how bad is it going to be if we get a whole lot of COVID cases and then that results in much more COVID cases needing to go back in the hospital, the same time the same thing is happening with flu? Then, that could be challenging on hospitals.”

The flu vaccine is recommended for those 6 months old and up “so that includes all schoolchildren. I would really recommend that as a way to hopefully keeping your kid from catching the flu this year.”

He also mentioned the Thanksgiving break being a concern, but “if we can keep as many mitigation strategies in place as possible then the effect an event like Thanksgiving or Christmas or something like that might have can be blunted. Some of it depends on the context, if numbers stay low around Thanksgiving, then yeah, there will probably be some more kids that pick up cases and take them back to school after but the numbers of it won’t be so high.

“Last year, what was going on around Thanksgiving in Arkansas was that numbers were increasing, they started to rise in early November and they were getting to a moderate to significant level at Thanksgiving,” he said. “So then Thanksgiving break happened, the kids went back to school and lots of schools saw a lot more cases after the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Unity Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Roddy Lochala said “as we go into our winter season, we’ve got what’s predicted to be a more significant influenza epidemic coming towards us and we understand that risk and we are used to having the flu around, that’s something we’ve dealt with in our community for years and years. I just encourage everyone one to be mindful of influenza and the things that increase your risk of having a significant infection or even being co-infected with COVID and influenza.”

Unity Health reported at the end of last week that its COVID-19 numbers are “significantly down and we are really glad to see that number go down for the patients and this community so thank you for everything you have done to protect yourself and protect those around you.”

Unity Health ended its drive-thru COVID-19 testing Friday and Chief Executive Officer Steven Webb said anyone needing to be tested could go to the clinics or see their primary care provider for a COVID test.

“We are very prayerful and thankful that current numbers in our hospital have diminished so that we feel like we can shut these things down,” Lochala said.

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