Governor Hutchinson emphasized the importance of students returning to the classroom in the fall in his weekly press conference Tuesday. Asked if he had concerns about the resumption of school with the rise of the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19, Hutchinson said he was comfortable starting school as normal. He stressed the importance of staff and vaccine-eligible students 12 and up getting shots and said the state would explore additional steps to protect students if necessary.
None of that is very reassuring for parents of children under 12.
The New York Times has reported that Pfizer and Moderna both plan to submit results of trials on children under 12 sometime in the fall. Arkansas public school starts sometime around August 16.
For much of last school year, there was a statewide mask mandate, and school districts across the state followed it. Hutchinson lifted it in March, but most large districts, including the Little Rock School District, maintained the mask requirement through the end of school year. But during this year’s legislative session, Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) successfully passed a bill that prohibits state or local officials from imposing mask mandates.
That leaves parents like me, with elementary-age children, in a stressful position. Despite the herculean efforts by their teachers, virtual school was a disaster for my first and fourth graders last year. My wife, while also working part-time, helped them with school for several hours every day. That’s not sustainable, and though I’m certain the LRSD and other districts in the state will improve their virtual delivery, it’s obviously not ideal for younger children learning to read or type. Anecdotally, everyone I know whose kids attended school virtually last year had a similar experience.
Perhaps the best hope for families in communities that believe the pandemic is a grave concern is for districts to strongly encourage students to wear masks. But even at the elementary school in Hillcrest where my children attend, I can’t imagine all families would adhere to the guidance. In other parts of the state, there will probably be districts that don’t recommend masks. And there will likely be places with anti-mask cultures among students. That leaves concerned parents contemplating another tortured year of virtual school.
Based on the presentation I’ve seen, Little Rock’s new virtual Ignite Digital Academy will be a significant improvement on last year’s virtual school. But there’s no way around it still being a lot of work for parents of kids still learning to read or type. Of course virtual school for young children also requires that a parent at least be at home with them at a time when many employers are increasingly less willing to allow remote work. And unlike this year, where the district allowed a lot of flexibility for students to move from virtual to in-person instruction, the LRSD wants families to commit to an entire year if they enroll in the digital academy. The deadline of July 15 is approaching.