The numbers, which the health department provided to the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network on Oct. 21, shed new light on the toll that COVID-19 has taken on Arkansas educators since the school year began. The health department has not previously published statewide totals for public school employees over this period. The department does publish a biweekly report of school employee and student case numbers in school districts with five or more “active” cases, along with cumulative cases since June 15.
The state as a whole, which has a population of about three million, recorded about 45,000 new positive tests from Aug. 24 to Oct 21. There are between 70,000 and 82,000 public school employees in Arkansas, according to the Arkansas Department of Education and the state agency that manages employee health insurance
Based on those figures, between 2.4% and 2.9% of public school employees tested positive just in the last two months — an incidence rate higher than the roughly 1.4% rate in the rest of the state’s population over the same period. This data suggests that the relative risk of infection for public school employees is significantly higher compared to the general population, though it does not adjust for demographics or other differences between the groups. (For example, school employees may get tested more frequently than most people.)
The six school workers who lost their lives to COVID-19 have been identified previously in news reports. Terry Lee Thacker, 68, a bus driver with the Russellville School District, died in late August. Jody Jenkins, 57, superintendent of the Atkins School District, died in late September. The others died in October: Susanne Michael, 47, an elementary teacher at the Harrisburg School District; Angela Francis, 43, a first-grade teacher at the Watson Chapel School District; Greg Rainwater, 51, the athletic director at the Nettleton School District; and Melissa Hilton, a paraprofessional at the Cabot School District.
It is not clear how many teachers and other staff became infected at school rather than elsewhere in the community. Mike Cima, the health department’s chief epidemiologist for outbreak response, said people may develop symptoms of COVID-19 anywhere from a few days to two weeks after exposure, making it hard to determine the source of transmission.
“Because there is such a wide window, it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty that a person acquired the virus at this particular place at this particular time,” Cima said.
The health department is seeing “a general increase in the number of cases associated with public schools,” he said, including some clusters in which transmission can be traced to school-related activities, such as team sports.
Asked whether the numbers of cases and hospitalizations among educators might prompt any change of policy from the state, Governor Hutchinson said through a spokesperson that “any case or hospitalization or death is cause for concern and we will continue to look for ways to improve safety and increase compliance with public health guidelines.”
Francisco Hernandez, a special education interpreter at the Fort Smith School District, is among those who were hospitalized with COVID-19 this fall. His wife and all three children living at home also became sick, he said, but their symptoms were not severe.
Hernandez, 46, began developing aches, chills and nausea in late August and tested positive on Aug. 22, a couple of days before students began reporting to school. “It got to a point where I wasn’t eating at all. Just the mention of food made me sick,” he said in a phone interview.
On his third day without food, his wife dropped him off at the Baptist Health - Fort Smith emergency room on Aug. 28, where he was admitted into an isolation area for COVID-19 patients. There, doctors discovered he had developed pneumonia in both lungs.
“The first two, three days, I wasn’t able to breathe at all,” Hernandez said. His blood oxygen levels dropped as low as 78, he said, and he was given oxygen around the clock. (A normal blood oxygen reading is between 95 and 100.) “If I needed to take a shower, I needed to shower with the oxygen on. And just walking from the bed to the bathroom, I was winded.”
After several days of oxygen, two transfusions of convalescent blood plasma and other therapeutic treatments, he said, his condition improved. Hernandez was discharged on Sept. 3 with a regimen of steroids. It took him weeks to return to normal, he said.
According to the Oct. 29 health department report on schools, the Fort Smith School District has seen a total of 46 cases of COVID-19 among faculty and staff and 216 cases among students since June 15. Hernandez probably did not contract the virus at work. His 17-year-old daughter was the first person in the household to fall ill, he said, and the family believes she was exposed at her retail job in mid-August before the school year began.
Hernandez returned to work Sept. 22. Unlike most of his colleagues, he has been able to do much of his job virtually this fall. In normal times, he traveled from school to school interpreting for Spanish-speaking families. Now those meetings happen over Zoom, from his office at a district building. Though he works around other adults, he has not been face-to-face with students all year, he said.
Dr. Gary Wheeler, president of the Arkansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said around 20% of all new cases in the state each day were affiliated with either students or school staff. (The most recent health department report said the state has seen a total of 5,689 cases among public school students since June 15.)
“That’s really high, but it reflects what’s going on in the community around them,” he said. “Schools don’t operate in a vacuum.”
The state added over 7,000 new cases last week, the most since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations have been climbing since early September and reached a new high of 676 on Wednesday. As of Oct. 28, the state had recorded 1,875 deaths.
After months of battling the virus, there is now “kind of a playbook” to drive down community transmission rates, Wheeler said.
“Switching schools to virtual [instruction] alone, in my mind, would not be a good idea,” he said. “It would have to be concurrent with limiting retail for some period of time. Limit sports teams, limit church attendance, reduce group gathering numbers — these are all established, evidence-based things. And if you did them all together, chances are you would have a positive impact.”
But the United States has lacked a synchronized, coordinated response to the virus since the beginning, Wheeler said. “At this point we’ve seen a doubling in cases over the last two months, and there are no new interventions presently planned,” he said.
At a virtual press conference on Tuesday, Governor Hutchinson said he does not intend to impose new restrictions on businesses. Instead, the governor called for individuals to have “discipline in terms of wearing a mask, socially distancing, protecting others from the spread of the virus.”
Wheeler noted that school closures carry clear risks for children, socially and psychologically. Teachers and school staff provide “an extra umbrella of oversight for all kinds of things that might occur within families, from dramatic hunger to child abuse,” he said. Some students may dramatically fall behind in academics without in-person instruction, potentially affecting them for years or even decades to come.
But, he added, “there’s potential harm from disease, and that has to be balanced properly.” Though children rarely die from COVID-19, they can become seriously ill, and the long-term risks associated with such a new disease are unknown. The American Academy of Pediatrics made recommendations several months ago stating that for in-person school to proceed safely, the community infection rate needed to be below a certain rate.
“There’s no guidance out there that would send children to school at the current levels of infection that we have,” Wheeler said. “Clearly, we’re between a rock and a hard place, and nothing’s going to be ideal.”
This fall, Arkansas took a more aggressive approach to school reopenings than most states, mandating that all schools give an option for in-person classes, five days a week. The Arkansas Department of Education allows schools to temporarily switch to virtual instruction if a campus sees a rise in cases. The decision must be made in consultation with the education department and the health department.
Education Secretary Johnny Key said in a briefing Tuesday that 169 schools had modified their operations since the beginning of the school year but had since returned to a normal schedule. In the week beginning Oct. 19, only 17 districts had some type of active modification plan, Key said.
When asked for comment from Key on the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths among public school employees, education department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell wrote in an email that “COVID affects everyone, no matter the profession. Every place of employment is facing similar challenges during this unprecedented time.”
Mundell said the education department does not track cases, hospitalizations or deaths of public school employees.
Cima, the epidemiologist, said the health department has worked extensively with the education department to develop policies around masks, social distancing and contact tracing procedures. The two agencies are rolling out a new rapid testing initiative this month to provide serial testing of employees at certain schools.
“Schools are really doing a pretty good job of implementing those [policies] and keeping transmission within the schools to a minimum,” he said.
Wheeler agreed, saying superintendents and Key deserved credit for reducing risks within schools. Rigorous masking is likely the biggest reason Arkansas schools have not seen worse outbreaks, he said.
“The second most important thing is space between students. The third most important thing is probably adequate ventilation in classrooms,” Wheeler said, which can be a challenge in older buildings. “And finally, trying to avoid gatherings of students.”
But some advocates for educators say that things look very different on the ground in certain districts. Shelley Smith, a recently retired teacher who runs a private Facebook group for Arkansas school employees with over 18,000 members, said she hears from teachers and staff on a daily basis who worry their schools are unsafe but are afraid of being disciplined by administrators if they speak out.
“In spite of what official reports tell you, there are districts where health guidelines are not being followed, sanitizing is not happening unless teachers and staff are doing it, kids are not wearing masks or distanced 6 feet apart. (I have seen that myself firsthand),” Smith wrote in a message. “Teachers are trying to keep smiling even though they are struggling to keep up with the demands of their daily routines.”
Modified schedules have helped, Smith said, but many teachers and staff are overworked and overwhelmed. “I do not know how a lot of folks will make it to June like this. I fear we will lose more to the virus and many more to resignations and retirements,” she wrote.
Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, also said many school employees feel they are unable to raise concerns about practices in their school because they fear retaliation.
“The state has no enforcement mechanism or accountability system when safety guidelines are not being followed. We know social distancing is impossible in many of our classrooms and buses, yet we continue working to educate students in these unsafe environments,” she wrote in an email.
Fleming said the Arkansas CARES Act Steering Committee, which was established to make recommendations for allocating federal aid, should provide more support for educators. “State and local leadership needs to recognize and acknowledge the current safety hazards that exist in our schools and take concrete action to address them,” she wrote.
*An earlier version of this story said "over 2,060" rather than "approximately 2,060."
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.