LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — The Arkansas Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics (ARAAP) said it "cannot support a statewide return-to-school decision" after a school re-opening guidance was released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
In the guidance, the AAP "strongly advocates" that all plans to re-open schools in the country should have a goal of "having students physically present in school," but also that the return happens with "careful measures" to keep both students and educators safe.
ARAAP said that while some Arkansas counties have a low spread rate, other counties have growing numbers, "indicating that community spread is uncontrolled and testing is not yet sufficiently reaching all infected people."
"Safety policies and resources are not standardized across the state, leading to inequitable protection for children, teachers, and families," ARAAP said in a press release.
"These disparities are especially detrimental to Black, Latinx, Marshallese, and other minority and low-income individuals who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in Arkansas. These factors suggest that opening all schools to in-person learning may not be the right choice at this time."
The group suggested that Arkansas officials focus on five strategies and implement them "in partnership with educators, administrators, parents, and students."
Below are the five strategies:
- Local, Data-Driven Decisions: ARAAP believes there should be clear guidance from the state on specific, county-level data indicators that show it is safer to open specific school districts. The White House Opening Up America Again plan suggests reopening schools (Phase 2) when a region has a downward case trajectory OR downward trajectory for the percentage of positive tests (provided there’s sufficient testing) for 14 days. ARAAP supports using, at minimum, these criteria to plan for safe re-opening at the county level. Public health data should not be used only to shut down schools because of an outbreak.
- K-12 Mandatory Masks: ARAAP thanks Governor Hutchinson for his statewide face mask mandate. ARAAP suggests an even stronger requirement in schools for mandatory K-12 student and teacher masks, with strong consideration given to requiring them for Pre-k 3 and 4. Perfection is not required, but masks are the state’s best tool to prevent spread. The AAP suggests most children age 2 and older can safely wear masks and recognizes there are exemptions.
- Social Distancing: ARAAP believes districts need clearer guidance on how to achieve social distancing and smaller, consistent cohorts of students. This will likely require fewer students to be in school buildings at any given time. Districts should be granted approvals to allow them to expand into space in community centers or to use creative scheduling to allow for social distancing when they open.
- State Purchasing Power: The AAP is advocating for federal funds to support safe school re-opening, and ARAAP was pleased to hear Governor Hutchinson share that he hoped AR’s federal delegation would support this. As they have thankfully done for the medical community, the state should utilize its purchasing power to obtain and distribute needed PPE, hand hygiene and cleaning supplies, and sanitation materials, including full medical PPE for all school nurses, building first responders, and teachers/para-professionals in self-contained/special needs classrooms.
- Building Engineering Support: As emerging research explores the possibility of airborne spread for COVID-19, ARAAP believes districts need funding for needed classroom ventilation updates. Experts should be consulted to address highest-priority needs.