Arkansas teachers, parents reflect on first week of school

KNWA

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Most Arkansas schools resumed classes this week amid the spiking COVID-19 Delta variant. Though schools took different approaches to safety guidelines, parents and administrators expressed optimism that the year would be successful.

Mayra Suchowski is a Farmington mother with four kids in the city school district. She is a healthcare worker who has seen the deadly effects of COVID-19 firsthand, and she said she’s pleased with Farmington’s mask mandate. Students haven’t been perfect in following it, Suchowski’s kids told her, but they’ve done well considering the circumstances.

“It’s a matter of keeping up with hundreds of kids, which I know can be a difficult task,” Suchowski said. “I can’t keep up with my own four kids as it is anyway. I can’t imagine having a multitude of kids to constantly keep an eye on.”

Farmington is one of 118 school districts that’s enacted a mask policy thus far, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) announced Thursday. That’s out of 262 districts. Eighty-seven decided not to implement one, while 57 have not yet taken any formal action.

“Farmington has done a fantastic job of implementing these safety guidelines for our staff and our students, I think,” Suchowski said.

The Fayetteville School District also implemented a mask mandate, and like many state schools, it’s already seeing COVID-19’s effects on students and staff. Since school started Monday, a consistently-updated dashboard shows 26 kids have been sent home to quarantine, while 148 students self-quarantined when school started.

The Fayetteville Public Schools COVID-19 Dashboard, updated August 19, 2021.

Megan Hurley is the Fayetteville School Board Vice President. She said she hopes the district’s plan works over time, noting a high vaccination rate in the school and most people in the community being willing to follow health guidelines.

“An in-person educational experience is the best one, and we want to preserve that for as many kids as we can,” Hurley said.

Hurley, who won her school board race in a record-turnout contest that reflected the ongoing “culture war” in the country, said the politicization of school guidelines has made it harder to follow a consistent path.

“Having school politicized is a really challenging for everybody, no matter where you are on that question, because as I said I think we just want all our kids to be healthy, well, loves and learning,” Hurley said.

Act 1002 banned mask mandates in the state. Earlier this month, a Pulaski Co. judge ordered an injunction to block the state law, meaning districts could enact mask mandates should they choose to do so. Some, like Farmington and Fayetteville, decided to do so. Others, like Springdale, chose to make masks optional.

Dana Wright is the computer science teacher at Central Jr. High in Springdale. She said she thinks the district’s plan is solid regardless of the lack of a mask mandate, noting spacing and cleanliness are key elements at the school.

“We’ve created a culture of care, and that to me is just evident in what I see in these students,” Wright said.

Wright said last year’s uncertainty fostered depression and anxiety for kids, but this first week has gotten off to a much better start.

“There’s no blended [learning] this year, so if they wish to be virtual they can do that,” Wright said. “Otherwise, they’re here every day, which makes it a lot easier for the students to engage.”

Private schools were not beholden to Act 1002 because they don’t rely on tax dollars to operate, and they also made their own decisions regarding school guidelines and masking. Union Christian in Fort Smith requires masks at all times unless a student is sitting in a desk in class, which is distanced. Lifeway Christian School in Centerton isn’t requiring masks.

Justin Moseley is the superintendent and Lifeway, and he said distancing and contact tracing are a part of the school’s COVID-19 plan.

“We definitely had to revisit our COVID plan from last year,” Moseley said.

Though masks are optional, Moseley said students have the option to still wear them if they wish.

“We have several students that are choosing to use them, but we’ve determined at this point not to make them required,” Moseley said.

Lifeway has grown tremendously over the summer, Moseley said, going from 370 kids last year to around 485. Lockers and desks are distanced, and it provides necessary spacing despite the growth, he said.

“We still have plenty of space to keep distancing,” Moseley said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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