UPDATE: The Bradford School District will be using AMI days Thursday and Friday. Students will be working remotely from home. Student lunches will be available for pick up from 11-11:30 a.m. in the car rider line. In-person instruction will resume Monday. If anyone has questions or concerns, they can call (501) 344-2707.

Although the Beebe School Board rejected a mask mandate Monday, the school district, along with four others in White County, has decided to switch to virtual learning through Monday's holiday with COVID-19 cases spiking due to the highly contagious omicron variant.

The school district announced Wednesday that it will be using AMI (alternative method of instruction) days Thursday and Friday "in hopes of decreasing the spread of sickness and to allow time for those who are sick to heal." Monday is the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

On these days, all district buildings and offices will be closed to on-site operations, the district said. All on-site operations will be open on Tuesday. All special education and therapy services will be offered virtually. Kindergarten through second-grade testing will be postponed to a later date. All extracurricular activities will go on as planned. If there are any changes, the district said it will be communicating the information via social media and the robocall system. The districts also made hotspots available for students to check out.

The other school districts to announce by Wednesday afternoon that they are using AMI days this week are Rose Bud, White County Central, Pangburn and Riverview.

Rose Bud posted on its Facebook page that it was transitioning to AMI on Wednesday through Friday due to illness. All school activities have been canceled for the rest of the week, including the basketball games which will be rescheduled.

White County Central announced Wednesday morning that due to increasing COVID numbers and having problems with staffing, it would be taking AMI days Thursday and Friday and will return Tuesday. Concerning internet issues any student may have, the district said it reached out Wednesday to families to notify the school to pick one up Thursday. Basketball games with Midland that were scheduled for Friday have been postponed.

Pangburn announced Wednesday that it also will use AMI days Thursday and Friday due to the increase in COVID cases and a number of absentees among students and staff. The day care also will be closed today and Friday.

In an announcement to parents, Riverview posted that it currently has 73 percent attendance mainly due to the number of students positive for the virus or in quarantine and would be taking an AMI day Friday. "I firmly believe that the best place for our students is in school, but at the same time, we have to approach each individual situation to determine what is best," Superintendent Stan Stratton said. 

"... The quarantine period has been reduced to five days and this will allow us to have four consecutive  days off with Monday being Martin Luther King Day and there will not be any school. My hope is that this will reduce our numbers and we can return to school next Tuesday with fewer students and staff out.

State law limits school districts to using 10 AMI days, Arkansas Secretary of Education Johnny Key said. "Also under statute, districts have to build in five makeup days into their calendar, so districts have 15 days total in which to work. But here's also the option of the old-fashioned makeup day that is not off the table and that is something the districts can do if the need to make up time — makeup days by adding an hour to their day; that is also an avenue that is available to them also under current state law."

In Monday's educational institutions report, the Arkansas Department of Health showed Searcy with 106 active cases, while Beebe had 50, Harding Academy 21, Bald Knob 17, Harding University 13, White County Central 12, Riverview 8, Pangburn 7 and Rose Bud 7.

The Searcy School District posted on its Facebook page Wednesday that "at this time, only 2.5 percent (102 students) across the district are identified as COVID-19 positive." The percentages were broken down as Sidney Deener Elementary School, 1.3 percent; McRae Elementary, 2 percent; Westside Elementary, 2.5 percent; Southwest Middle School. 1.8 percent; Ahlf Junior High School, 2.1 percent; and Searcy High School, 4.3 percent.

Searcy is one of three school districts currently requiring students and staff to wear face masks. The other two are Bald Knob and Bradford.

On Monday night, the Beebe School Board voted down a motion made by member Dr. Kathy Pillow Price to reinstate the district's mask mandate.

"Our board may not always agree, and I will always respect my fellow board members' opinions, but I think that's what's best for our district at the time," Pillow Price said in making the motion, which was seconded by board member Harold Davis. Board President Clay Goff and members Jason Smith and Janet Hines voted against the mandate.

"The motion did not pass; masks will not be back on by a 3-2 margin," Goff said. "But they will be optional," Smith said.

Beebe Superintendent Chris Nail told the board, "As you all know the omicron [variant] in Arkansas is just hitting everywhere, in schools, too. We've seen a substantial uptick in student sickness and in quarantine and also staff sickness and quarantine.

"We're definitely trending upward; there's no way of getting around that. We do have enough staff that we can cover the buildings right now. That's what I worry about the most is if at some point are we going to have enough staff members to do a good job covering for our students."

Nail said students may get tested on campus through the school district's ARcare facility. Beebe also held vaccination clinic for students Friday.

In his weekly news conference Tuesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson discussed the COVID-19 vaccination rates by ages categories. He said in the 65 and older area, 43 percent are fully boosted and 76 percent are fully vaccinated but had not received a booster. 

"Almost 86 percent of those that are hospitalized because of COVID have not been fully vaccinated and that's the data point that should catch everybody's attention," Hutchinson said.

The seven-day rolling average of positivity was at 30 percent. "So it's very high in terms of positivity right now," Hutchinson said.

One Wednesday afternoon, a record 10,974 new COVID cases were reported in Arkansas. 

Key said some opportunities for flexibility in school districts dealing with COVID-19 reporting have been created in working with Arkansas Health Secretary Jose Romero. He said the first priority was that they wanted the school districts to identify the positive cases and report those to the health department.

"And then the second priority is to identify the individuals with symptoms and make sure they are removed from the school setting so they can go and get tested, and then the third priority is to identify individuals in the school who are obvious contacts to those positive cases and getting them off campus for the recommended quarantine period," Key said. "For the time being, until the district experiences a slowdown in the surge that they are seeing, these probable close contacts do not have to be reported to the health department on the probable close contact form and that's where much of the work, much of the overwhelming burden, is occurring in that reporting process."

Key said that any district that has a universal mask requirement in place can forgo identifying the probable close contacts in their district with the exception of those settings of high transmissibility, such as athletic or other extra curricular activities where the individuals are unmasked and where there's close contact with those individuals.

"That is an area where identifying probable close contacts should continue and we believe this should provide some immediate relief to those districts who are encountering just an overwhelming number of reporting burdens and tracing burdens right now," he said.

Romero mentioned that COVID tests are available and are being given for free in local health department units, and libraries are partnering in this effort, too.

"It's important to note that if you have symptoms on a test very early, you need to follow that with a second test," Romero said. "That's why individuals who are coming in are being given two tests, six tests for a family. Be sure that you double up on that and double-check yourself a day or two later to make sure you haven't become positive; use your mask until then."

Romero said it is also important that anyone who tests positive follows the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for quarantine. By knowing that an individual is positive, he said, "you remove yourself from the community, so you don't spread the virus outside. Anybody really going public should be using a mask at this time, that is your safest way of protecting yourself even if you've been vaccinated and more so if you're not."

Romero said a CDC report from last week showed that children who have had COVID are at greater risk for developing diabetes mellitus, "that's sugar in the blood that requires insulin use. That has to be further substantiated but two large studies document and support the data that already exists for adults. So again, parents need to take this into account when deciding when to vaccinate and if to vaccinate their children.

"I strongly recommend it," he said. "I have to say unfortunately in our state only 10.3 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 11 are fully vaccinated, so we have a long way to go and again use of masks in school."

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