NORTHWEST ARKANSAS, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — The holidays are over and the new school semester starts this week for school districts across Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley. Parents have a lot of questions and concerns as the Omicron variant continues to surge.
“There’s still definitely that fear,” said Farmington Schools parent Lauren Mallett-Hays. “Dropping them off today definitely didn’t see as many masks as I would have liked to have seen.”
Mallett-Hays dropped off her 5th and 2nd graders back to Farmington Schools on Monday. Farmington was one of the only school districts to start the semester with students on January 3rd. She kept her kids virtual last semester as the Delta variant struck.
“I just wasn’t comfortable sending them at that point because Delta was hitting kids a lot harder than the original variant was,” she said. “I just kind of had to make a decision, follow my gut there.”
Now her kids are going back to in person learning, armed with vaccinations and their masks. Mallett-Hays works as a speech language pathologist at Washington Regional, and she sees how COVID-19 is impacting our health care systems. As a result, she is asking her kids to keep their masks on all day.
“I really just tried to talk to my kids about that about why I’m not trying to be mean and you know, just because their friends aren’t wearing the masks I really need them to,” she said.
Dr. Rick Barr with Arkansas Children’s Hospital said this is exactly what parents need to be doing to protect their kids from the rapidly spreading Omicron variant. The Arkansas Department of Health is reporting 4,235 active pediatric cases in the state as of January 3rd.
“Kids should be wearing masks to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant when they go back to school,” he said. “We know mass work, not only against COVID, but also against multiple other viruses.”
Dr. Barr said they have 10 kids hospitalized between the two Arkansas Children’s hospital locations. Arkansas Children’s in Little Rock has more than 300 beds, and has 24 at it’s Northwest Arkansas location in Springdale. While 10 kids may not seem like much, Dr. Barr said that is an increase over the past month. And with the Omicron surge just beginning, there is a risk that number could continue to trend upwards.
He said symptoms for kids he’s currently seeing in the hospital range from upper respiratory problems, GI complaints, rashes and a reemergence of MIS-C syndrome. Dr. Barr said he didn’t see MIS-C in kids with the Delta variant.
“Most of the kids be admitted to the hospital now are not vaccinated,” said Dr. Barr “Some are less than five, but a number over five and are eligible for vaccine. So we know the vaccine does prevent against severe disease.”
Farmington Schools said it is currently on a mask advisory policy for staff and students. In a statement, the school district said it is actively monitoring the number of cases and quarantines, and is preparing to go into one of the Arkansas Department of Education’s response levels if necessary. Go to slides 23 through 32 of this PDF to learn more.
“Get vaccinated if your kids are old enough and wear the masks, because those are the only two options we have right now to protect our kids the best we can because at this point,” said Mallett-Hays. “We can’t rely on other people to protect them for us.”
The Arkansas Education Association said that while in person instruction is the best, it must be done safely, and is urging masks. The Arkansas Chapter of the American Pediatrics is also asking schools to enforce mask policies and vaccinations.