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Arkansas school districts must stay open for onsite learning 5 days a week

The Arkansas Education Department told school districts they must stay open for onsite learning all week in order to comply with the state Constitution.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Note: The attached video is from an earlier report of Gov. Hutchinson reiterating his reasoning for reopening schools to onsite learning.

Arkansas is requiring schools to stay open five days a week when classes resume this month, state education officials said Wednesday, complicating efforts by some districts to limit on-site instruction because of the coronavirus.

Education Secretary Johnny Key issued the guidance to districts as the state reported 912 new confirmed cases of coronavirus and 18 more deaths from the illness caused by the virus.

The Education Department told districts they must stay open to students and offer “relevant and engaging onsite learning opportunities" all week in order to comply with the state Constitution. Arkansas' public schools are set to reopen the week of August 24. Some districts could only keep their facilities open four days a week if approved by the state Board of Education, the guidance said.

“Districts are encouraged to provide additional options for parents and students that allow for flexible schedules and virtual learning options, but must first provide an onsite option where students can access educational resources, school meals, and other needed support daily," the guidance said.

The directions come as some districts have been planning to limit the number of on-site classes and using remote learning during part of the week to reduce the risk of the virus' spread. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has stood by plans to resume classes this month, despite objections from pediatricians and teachers' groups.

The latest direction is taking away the flexibility districts need in planning on how to resume classes, the Arkansas Education Association said.

“Unfortunately, our state is not ready to return to in-person learning," Tracey-Ann Nelson, the group's executive director, said in a statement. 

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“Instead of using this time to plan on ways to reach the students who will need the most help in this disruptive situation, the state is now upending the plans local districts have spent months developing with educators, parents, and community stakeholders."

Key said the directions reflect the stance the state has had since March when it closed schools to on-site instruction because of the pandemic.

“We have said since day one the plan for the fall of this school year was to come back and have school on-site," he said. 

The Department of Health said at least 46,293 people in the state have tested positive for the virus. The department said 6,937 of those cases are active, meaning they don't include people who have died or recovered.

The true number of cases in Arkansas is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

RELATED: Coronavirus updates: 912 new cases in Arkansas, over 500 deaths total

The number of people who have died from COVID-19. the illness caused by the virus rose to 508. The number of people hospitalized decreased by 10 to 516.

Hutchinson announced the state has begun testing all of its prison inmates and planned to complete that testing by the end of the month. The Department of Correction has tested more than 9,400 inmates and will test another 9,500 before the end of the month.

Hutchinson also named Dr. Jose Romero as the state's new health secretary. Romero had been serving in the position on an interim basis since Dr. Nate Smith left for a job with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.