JONESBORO – In-person learning at local educational institutions is going to be a bit different this school year, according to area administrators.
Bill Smith, chief communications officer for Arkansas State University, said this fall at A-State will look a lot like pre-COVID.
“We will not see the spacing like we did last fall,” Smith said. “We learned a lot this spring; we learned we could manage well.”
Smith said both staff and administration encourage students who feel more comfortable wearing masks to continue to do so.
“We have been putting signs up on campus and reminding students masks are welcomed and encouraged. They are still recommended by the Centers for Disease Control,” Smith said.
“We also want students to be accepting of other students who want to wear masks.”
Smith said despite Arkansas State University returning to the pre-COVID semblance of normal, there are lessons learned from the pandemic that will continue to influence university decisions far into the future.
“All professors are being encouraged to put an emergency plan into the class syllabus,” Smith said.
“The Provost (Alan Utter) has recommended the emergency plan in case we have to go to remote learning,” he added.
Smith said the pivot to remote learning is not just something that was helpful for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During that time we also had a tornado, and back to back to back ice storms,” Smith said. “If that tornado had hit the college campus we would have had to pivot to remote learning at that time.”
If the university had not had remote learning at the time of the winter storms in February, Smith said students would have had to miss 10 consecutive days.
“We want that emergency plan in place whether it is a virus, a tornado or an ice storm,” he said.
Whatever the decision is on Wednesday as Arkansas legislators debate the mask mandate ban, Smith said it will not affect the university’s decision on allowing masks to be optional on campus.
“I think the governor’s thinking is that a lot of students in kindergarten through 12th grade are still unable to receive the vaccine,” he said. “Vaccines are an essential key to eliminating the pandemic.”
Jonesboro Public Schools issued guidelines that indicate its school year will look a lot like last year except masks are not mandatory and vaccine clinics are a primary focus.
A clinic will be held from 10 a.m. to noon today at Donn Riggs Hurricane Gymnasium for students and parents.
“We have provided details regarding registering through our parent notification system but walk-ins are also welcome,” Superintendent Kim Wilbanks wrote in an email to The Sun. “Our second clinic will be held on August 25 at each of the three secondary campuses for students in grades 7-12. We are encouraging students to take advantage of these opportunities. Any student who is completely vaccinated will not be required to quarantine if they are in close contact with a COVID-19 individual.”
Last week, the district issued guidelines on how to protect students this year against the delta variant, which is more easily transmissible and is making children sicker.
Although not requiring, guidelines posted by Wilbanks say that masks are strongly recommended.
“Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson reinstated the state’s general health emergency Thursday, July 28, as he also called for a special legislative session. Depending on the outcome of this session, guidance regarding mask-wearing may be adjusted,” the release stated.
The COVID-19 guidelines document also makes parents aware their input is needed and sent links to a survey for parent opinion on masks.
The district also noted there will not be a virtual learning academy this year.
One COVID-19 precaution that will remain in place is the extra sanitation and cleaning methods.
“Good hand hygiene will continue to be encouraged,” the guidelines state. “Teachers will have hand sanitizer made available to them.”
Smith said A-State students will continue to have to report positive COVID-19 test results.
“Students still need to tell us if they have had a COVID positive test,” Smith said. “When things slacked off, I had students say I thought this was over.”
Smith said students still have to report and still have to quarantine.
“As soon as we get those results we have contact tracers who track down who the students were around during that time,” he said.
One district is waiting to release any guidelines until the the special legislative session concludes this week.
Westside Superintendent Scott Gauntt said the district’s school board has yet to release guidelines for this year.
“We haven’t approved anything yet due to the special session,” Gauntt wrote in a text message to The Sun on Tuesday.
“I didn’t want to solidify something only to have the legislation come back and reverse the course on us,” Gauntt wrote. “That would generate misinformation and confusion. We will try to have a special board meeting early next week to iron out our plans.”