JONESBORO — The governor’s office, instead of educators, is pushing for the return of high school football, Jonesboro Public Schools Superintendent Kim Wilbanks said Wednesday.
“This is absolutely the most challenging year of my educational career ahead of us,” Wilbanks told members of the Jonesboro Kiwanis Club via Zoom.
“So, for the first time in the history of my educational career, our educational organizations are not able to independently make decisions,” Wilbanks said, when asked if she was comfortable bringing back high school football this fall. “The governor’s office is trumping the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.”
Wilbanks said once a week, she hears what Gov. Asa Hutchinson is telling the schools, but not what educators are telling the governor.
“The Arkansas Activities Association has been asked nothing about playing football,” she said. Wilbanks serves on the AAA board of directors.
Playing football safely is going to be a struggle, she said.
“We struggle because we’ve been told kids will have to wear masks at recess, but we’re going to line up kids on Friday night face-to-face to play a football game?” she said.
While many of the players are distanced on the field, what about the linemen who line up face-to-face every play during a game, she asked.
“As the reopening has occurred, it has, very much so in our state, been based on economically driven decisions, and the entire facet of sports is driven by economic decisions,” she said.
While the state’s proclamations give the impression that everything is better, Wilbanks said she is concerned about what playing football is going to mean for Jonesboro Public Schools.
“Imagine every Friday night, there’s a crowd in the stands,” she said. “What I have learned is that people in structured situations do what they are supposed to do, and in a non-structured situation they forget. They take off masks, they stand too close together. It is going to be a challenge on Friday nights.”
One of the biggest problems in preparing to safely return students to school is the lack of sufficient data on the coronavirus and its transmission, Wilbanks said.
“One study says children 15 and under are not probable carriers, and not likely to have symptoms,” she said. “Another study says children 15 and under are high-level carriers. I think that is part of the struggle.”
Wilbanks said there is only six months’ worth of research on the virus, and you can’t get good results from just six months of research.
“But this research is being presented as solid research,” she said, “which is really just six months’ of study with a little opinion put in.
“I’m sure two years from now, we’re going to look back and say, ‘what fools we were,’” she said.
Wednesday was the first day back to work for district teachers, and Wilbanks said everyone showed up for work.
“I have been telling my staff, this year your best is good enough,” Wilbanks said.
Teachers who might have spent more time decorating, or who are used to walking the classroom and touching students will have to adapt.
“I tell them, ‘just do the best you can do, and that will be good enough,’” she said.
When students return Aug. 24, about 4,800 children will be returning to the district’s 12 campuses, while about 1,500 are expected to return as online students.
What will the new school year look like at Jonesboro schools?
“We’re going to be wearing face masks, the students are going to wear masks, and we are going to provide hand sanitizer and provide masks for teachers and students,” Wilbanks said.
Classrooms will be cleaned constantly, and the students will be involved in some of that cleaning process, the superintendent said. For bigger spaces, like auditoriums and the band room, the district now has fogging machines for cleaning larger spaces.
“We are changing the way we operate. Where there used to be a lot of freedom for students,” she said, “we’re going back to assigned seating, and sitting in straight rows.”
The school district is also expecting to assume contact tracing duties from the state Department of Health, at least as far as students go, so that information is going to be vital in the case of any infected students.
“Anytime we have a potential case,” she said, “it is going to be important that we know who the student has been around, so we can provide that information to parents.”