JONESBORO — Arkansas will veer away from federal quarantine guidelines in schools, state officials announced Tuesday.

The announcement was made as a statewide decline in new coronavirus cases continued. In fact, the state had the fewest new cases Monday in eight months.

Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommend quarantines for unvaccinated students who have been in probable close contact with an infected individual. Probable close contact is defined as being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes. That standard will now be for individuals who came within 3 feet for at least 15 minutes.

During his weekly news conference, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said state education and health officials agreed to make the change after local school officials complained of the hardships quarantines cause to schools, teachers, parents and guardians.

“Clearly, if you were at the height of the pandemic, I don’t think this is something you would do,” Hutchinson said, noting the number of new cases continues to decline. “But, as a leader, you have to balance the risk and the losses. Right now, we’re having severe hardships in our schools to our students and learning loss and a lack of participation and dropping out, and that is a huge human loss as well. And a risk.”

Hutchinson said the local schools have worked hard to keep COVID-19 cases at a minimum. The relaxed quarantine standards will remain in effect only if there is not a new surge in cases, Dr. Jose Romero, state health secretary noted.

Romero also said the state will allow daily testing for unvaccinated students who want to participate in extracurricular activities.

However, Education Secretary Johnny Key stressed that students who have COVID-like symptoms should stay away from the classroom.

“Parents, caregivers, if your students are sick, if they are showing symptoms, please keep them at home,” Key said. “As we shift this guidance, it is more important than ever that we pay closer attention to the other mitigating steps that can be taken with respect to the spread of COVID.”

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 661 new cases on Tuesday, down from 723 on Oct. 5. However, there were 21 deaths, compared to 15 the previous Tuesday.

Craighead County recorded 27 new cases Tuesday, followed by Jackson County with 18; Cross, 12; Mississippi, 9; Greene, 8; Randolph 6; Poinsett, 4; and Clay and Lawrence, 3.

For the most part the caseload continued to decline in Northeast Arkansas, a Sun review of daily reports found. Craighead County, for example had another 20 percent drop between Oct. 11 and Sunday. However, Jackson County’s numbers rose by 72.34 percent during that seven-day period.

On Monday, the health department said the Grimes Prison Unit at Newport had one active case among inmates and 14 among prison employees. The McPherson Unit at Newport had four cases among inmates and nine among staff members.

Northeast Arkansas COVID-19 cases by county Oct. 11 through Sunday:

Craighead – 172 new cases (decrease of 44 from last week); 333 active cases (decrease of 33); 241 total virus deaths (unchanged).

Greene – 93 new cases (decrease of 40); 164 active (decrease of 64); 122 deaths (increase of 4).

Lawrence – 25 new cases (decrease of 25); 56 active (decrease of 17); 56 deaths (increase of 1).

Poinsett – 35 new cases (decrease of 23); 73 active (decrease of 29); 98 deaths (unchanged).

Mississippi – 98 new cases (decrease of 28); 210 active cases (increase of 3); 137 deaths (unchanged).

Jackson – 81 new cases (increase of 34); 120 active cases (increase of 45); 42 deaths (unchanged).

Randolph – 47 new cases (decrease of 1), 75 active cases (decrease of 18); 55 deaths unchanged).

Cross – 39 new cases (decrease of 2), 54 active cases (increase of 2); 64 deaths (unchanged).

Clay – 19 new cases (decrease of 15); 39 active cases (decrease of 31); 66 deaths (increase of 2).