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.”

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