All Arkansans share the same goal of children returning to safe school settings, both for children’s well-being and to help reduce the stress families are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (ARAAP) represents more than 400 pediatricians who care for children across the state who share a goal of a safe return to school for students and their caregivers.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released guidance on re-opening schools. The AAP states a clear “goal of having students physically present in school” yet stresses that “this should happen with careful measures to keep students and staff safe, and with flexibility to adapt as needed to the community’s prevalence of COVID-19.” The AAP statement also outlined comprehensive guidance that included age-specific suggestions to mitigate potential spread, suggested higher- and lower-priority strategies for schools, and made recommendations focused on specific activities and populations. ARAAP supports the AAP statement.
Given this guidance, at this time ARAAP cannot support a statewide return-to-school decision for Arkansas in August. While some counties may have extremely low rates of spread, others have growing numbers of positive cases or consistent positive test rates hovering around 30%, indicating that community spread is uncontrolled and testing is not yet sufficiently reaching all infected people. Additionally, safety policies and resources are not standardized across the state, leading to inequitable protection for children, teachers, and families. 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.
To ensure a safe school setting in Arkansas, ARAAP suggests the state prioritize the following strategies, which should be implemented in partnership with educators, administrators, parents, and students.
- 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.
ARAAP members are committed to working with state leaders to develop safe return to school plans, including strategies not mentioned here. ARAAP leaders have met with state agency leaders to discuss these recommendations and are collaborating on issues such as policies for evaluating fever-illnesses in a school setting.
ARAAP joins all state leaders in emphasizing the importance of well-child visits, immunizations, and flu shots this year to ensure that children’s physical and emotional needs are being addressed during the pandemic.
ARAAP offers the guidance of its members to support optimal health outcomes for children and their caregivers during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.