Nearly 400 quarantined in local school districts

Wednesday, September 1, 2021
Eureka Springs School District nurse Meghan Wolfinbarger helps out at the school’s vaccine clinic on Thursday, Aug. 12. The clinic was organized through Eureka Springs Hospital and held at the first open house of the school year.
Samantha Jones / Carroll County News

Two weeks after three Carroll County school districts opened their doors for the 2021-2022 school year, nearly 400 students and staff members have been forced into quarantine or isolation after being exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.

Most of those are from the Berryville School District, where the board of education voted last week — a full week after the school year started — to reinstate the mask mandate that was in place for most of the previous year.

According to Berryville superintendent Owen Powell, the decision to reinstate the mandate came out of a desire to protect students and staff and keep them in school.

“We’ve had some pretty big numbers and we want to be able to have school,” Powell said. “We want to be able to have face-to-face instruction. I think that’s what drove that mandate. We will look at the numbers and track it for the next month and then we’ll revisit that at the next board meeting.”

The vote, which came after the board heard from school nurse Kristy Evans regarding the number of positive tests for COVID-19 among students and staff in the district, came after a motion by board member Travis Gregory to add a mask mandate addendum to the district’s Ready For Learning Plan.

Powell described the numbers Evans shared as fluid, but still high.

“We have 20 positive cases and about 255 people in quarantine right now,” Powell said Thursday, Aug. 26. “We’ve seen a pretty big spike over the last week. Hopefully those numbers will come down and we’ll revisit [the mandate] at the next board meeting.”

Based on the numbers shared during the Aug. 23 meeting, the Berryville board voted to re-enact their mask mandate in a 4-1 vote, with board president Chad Hipps the only dissenting vote. The board made the mandate effective as of Aug. 24, and notified parents via a letter posted to the district’s Facebook page.

“During the August School Board of Education meeting, the board members voted to require students and staff to wear a face covering when social distancing of six feet cannot be maintained,” the letter read, going on to explain that the mandate will be revisited at the September board meeting. “With a mask mandate in place, the number of quarantined students will be reduced. Fewer quarantined students mean more students in the classrooms.”

The mask mandate was made possible because of a temporary injunction filed earlier this month by a Pulaski County Circuit Court judge in a lawsuit challenging Act 1002, a measure signed into law in the spring that was intended to prevent public entities from issuing mask mandates.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has since said he regrets signing the measure and even called a special session of the state legislature to give lawmakers a chance to amend the act to give local school districts the power to make their own choices. The session adjourned without any action taken regarding the measure, which prompted two separate lawsuits filed by school districts challenging the new law.

The Eureka Springs school district re-enacted its mandate before school started, while Berryville and Green Forest, acting on advice from their respective legal counsel, decided to wait.

According to Green Forest superintendent Matt Summers, as of Friday, approximately 100 students and staff in that district were quarantined in relation to six positive cases. At Eureka Springs, 23 students are staff are newly quarantined or isolated.

In all three districts, the number of individuals placed in quarantine is directly related to the vaccination status of individuals determined to be close contacts to an infected individual.

According to the latest guidelines from the state health department, fully vaccinated students or staff do not need to quarantine if deemed close contacts, unless they have or develop symptoms. Individuals exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19 do not need to be quarantined if they have no symptoms and both the infected and exposed individual were consistently and correctly wearing a mask.

Powell said he expected the Berryville district to receive some blowback over the decision to require masks, but added that he felt it was a necessary decision.

“There’s probably a handful of folks that they aren’t particularly excited about sending the kids to school in a mask,” Powell said, “but it’s a tough situation. We want the kids to be in school.”

At Green Forest, Summers — who described the pandemic situation as a “major dilemma” — said he doesn’t expect the board to take any action regarding masks any time soon, but added that the district is partnering with Economy Drug to host a vaccination clinic for students and staff from noon to 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 3. The clinic is open to all staff and students 12 and older. Parents were notified via letters sent home with students and in posts on the district’s social media accounts.

“We’re trying to get the word out,” Summers said.

The Eureka Springs School District partnered with Eureka Springs Hospital to hold a vaccine clinic at its open house event on Thursday, Aug. 12. Middle school nurse Kevin Vaverka said it was good to see so many kids getting vaccinated.

“It will help keep the numbers down, I hope,” Vaverka said.

Powell said there has been discussion of holding a similar event in the Berryville district, but no plans have been made.

Since the pandemic began, hospitalizations related to the virus have included 619 children under the age of 18 in Arkansas, with nearly 400 of those being children under 12, the age cutoff for vaccine eligibility.

In Carroll County — which lags behind the state average for vaccinations — the ADH reported Monday that an additional 563 doses of the various vaccines have been administered to eligible individuals in the past week, bringing the total to 19,299 and raising the percentage of county residents aged 12 and up that are fully vaccinated against the virus to 36.7 percent. An additional 10.2 percent have been partially immunized.

Powell said having so many students in quarantine is a problem both for the district and its families.

“It’s really difficult on our families,” Powell said, “especially with the younger kids. We send them into quarantine and then the parents have to stay home with their child and can’t go to work.”

The next meeting of the Berryville school board is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 20, at the district administration building.

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