COVID-19 Testing Program Launched in Four Arkansas School Districts

The goal of the initiative is to reduce quarantines and keep students in the classroom.

masked student using hand sanitizer at his desk

Arkansas health and education officials have developed a program that aims to reduce quarantines for students. Under the initiative, students who are exposed to COVID-19 can remain in school if they submit to regular testing and continue to test negative. The pilot program is being launched in four districts — Bentonville, Cabot, Russellville and Springdale. 

“I applaud those schools for looking at this and working with our Department of Health and our Department of Education to give another option to keep kids in the classroom, avoid quarantine, but to do it in a safe way,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during today’s weekly press briefing

Officials will work with these schools for two weeks before analyzing the data and determining how to roll the program out to other schools who choose to participate. 

There are approximately 1,600 active cases in the state’s school districts, about 500 fewer than last week, but it’s important to remember COVID-19 is still dangerous for children, especially for those under 12 years of age who are not eligible for vaccination, Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said. 

From December 2020 to August 2021, Arkansas saw an 84 percent increase in pediatric hospitalizations. ICU admissions increased by nearly 64 percent during that same period. Not only are more children being admitted to the ICU, but they are requiring more ventilator use than in the past. 

“I want parents to understand that there is vaccine available for those individuals ages 12 to 18; that is the way to prevent this type of admission,” Romero said. “This disease does have significant ramifications. Please take advantage of it.” 

Masking and quarantines are being recommended in schools to help prevent the transmission of the virus to susceptible individuals, especially children under the age of 12 who cannot be vaccinated, he said. 

While school districts are trending in the right direction with fewer active cases, the effort required to have a successful school year is taking a toll on teachers, administrators and staff, Education Secretary Johnny Key said.

“It’s taking an extraordinary amount of mental energy, emotional energy and physical energy,” he said. “And we’re getting feedback from some teachers, and in some cases some of the most positive people that I know telling me we need help.”

Help is available through the Employee Assistance Program, which is already part of the benefits package for all public school employees, he said. Through EAP, school employees, as well as members of their household up to the age of 26, have access to counselors.

“We want to stress your mental health is important to us, it is important to your students,” Key said. “And for us to continue to have a successful school year, we want to make sure you get the assistance you need.”

The service is confidential and provided for free. The Arkansas Department of Education will share more information about the program through its social media channels.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.