ARKANSAS, USA — The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) released new data on Monday, Jan. 10, showing that 97% of Arkansas school districts have high COVID-19 infection rates within their communities. Due to the spike in cases brought on by the omicron variant, ACHI is calling for short-term actions to combat the virus.
ACHI is a health policy center that tracks data and uses it to help make policy that improves the health of Arkansans. Part of their data follows COVID-19 infections per 10,000 people over 14 days in Arkansas school districts' communities. Their latest report shows 97% of the state's 234 school districts have community infection rates of 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 district residents over 14 days.
ACHI's school district data is no surprise following a week of consecutive record-high new COVID-19 cases reported in Arkansas by the health department.
To help stop the spread of the virus, the ACHI recommends the following short-term actions take place immediately.
- Masking requirements for all staff and students in all schools across the state.
- Virtual instruction for schools in the purple and pink zones (check map above).
- Sheltering in place for seniors, families with unvaccinated children, and families with members who are immunocompromised or at risk because of health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or cancer.
- Suspension of public interactions or implementation of virtual options where possible on the part of municipalities, businesses and houses of worship.
Some school districts have responded to ACHI's report by requiring face coverings for students, teachers and staff. Some are being forced to pivot to virtual learning due to the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms.
"We need to provide a safe environment. We want them to be safe, we want our staff to be safe. But in order to educate our kids we need them in school,” said Siloam Springs Assistant Superintendent Shane Patrick.
Patrick says in-person learning is what's best for students.
Siloam Springs School District is taking COVID safety measures like social distancing, hosting most meetings via Zoom, and limiting visitors to continue in person learning. However, before the start of the fall semester, the school board decided to not require masks.
"They voted not to have a mask mandate to make it a choice for each and every parent,” Patrick said. “So, that's the way it will be at this time."
ACHI President & CEO Dr. Joe Thompson says it is also important that people get vaccinated and their booster doses to fight the omicron surge.
"Most importantly we need to protect individuals that are of high risk,” Dr. Thompson said.
Facilities caring for high risk individuals such as seniors say they are taking necessary precautions.
“We are literally cleaning and disinfecting all the major touch surfaces," said Butterfield Trail Village Independent Living Facility Director of Marketing Kelly Syer.
They are cleaning three times a day and making sure to social distance.
“We are back to asking that people wear masks," Syer said.
ACHI is aware COVID-19 fatigue is high two years into the pandemic but says these are short-term solutions to address what could become a long-term problem.
"(I) Think we've all become tired of Covid, and this is not going to last forever, but this variant is very, very infectious, and it's moving very quickly," Dr. Thompson told 5NEWS. "It's going to be relatively short term, but it's gonna be a very significant threat for families and communities across the state."