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Rising COVID-19 cases in Arkansas schools causing concern among health officials

"That is a product of not having those children immunized and doing, relaxing the mask mandate or the mask requirements," Dr. Jose Romero said.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Top Arkansas health officials continue to keep a close eye on rising COVID-19 cases and they're focusing concern on one specific age group. 

Cases in schools, specifically in younger students, are increasing at a rate that's worrying doctors in the state. 

It's the kids we now have a vaccine for— that five to 11 age group— and kids who are younger and can't be protected that is raising concern for health officials and school administrators.

Arkansas' public schools had over 1,200 total active COVID-19 cases this week for the first time in more than a month. 

Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero addressed his worries in the governor's press conference on Monday, Nov. 15, stating the majority of those cases are students. 

"That is a product of not having those children immunized... relaxing the mask mandate or the mask requirements," he said. 

According to ADH's school data, COVID cases jumped by 267 from Nov. 4 to Nov. 15. 

Dr. Jennifer Dillaha with the Arkansas Department of Health believes the uptick connects with mask requirements lifting in schools.

"We're seeing an increase in circulation in the school setting, whereas before, we were not," she said.

It's not only health officials watching the cases increase. School administrators like Dr. Janice Warren with Pulaski County Special School District are doing the same.

"It's nerve-racking because you know, you're putting the health and safety of your students and staff in jeopardy as the numbers increase," she said.

Dr. Warren said the districts' COVID cases have more than doubled in one week— specifically in their elementary schools.

"We anticipate that the numbers are going to continue to rise until we get the majority of our students vaccinated," she said.

Dr. Warren believes optional masks and quarantine changes could play a role in this peak but she wants to remind parents that safety is the district's top priority.

"We're gonna do everything that we can to keep your students and our staff safe," she said.

Several schools are continuing to change their mask policies as we get further into the semester. 

For example, Jacksonville North Pulaski School District announced Tuesday, Nov. 16, that masks are now optional for students and staff.