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LITTLE ROCK - This week, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Citizens First Congress (CFC) released a policy memo detailing concerns about Arkansas’s ability to start school this fall in a manner that is safe, effective, and equitable for students and educators. The memo cites minimum standards for reopening from the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Education Association such as declining numbers of COVID-19 positive cases, positivity rates under 5 percent, and large-scale rapid testing capacity.

“Arkansas is failing to meet nearly all of the suggested minimum standards for reopening schools,” explained Executive Director Bill Kopsky. “We must put into place the conditions, people, and tools to provide an adequate, equitable education for every child in Arkansas. This is a state responsibility that cannot be delegated to local school districts that don’t have the resources to meet the needs of safe and effective education during COVID.” Kopsky also noted that Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently mandated masks in most public settings, meeting one of the recommendations for reopening schools.

The Arkansas Public Policy Panel and CFC Education Caucus, which is composed of community leaders from around the state, recommends the creation of an Adequacy and Equity in COVID-19 Task Force to include parents, students, teachers, school personnel, health care departments, and community leaders.

“Adequate and equitable education is not only a moral responsibility of the state, it is a constitutional guarantee for every child in Arkansas. We cannot fail our kids now,” stated Alyce Love, a retired educator and CFC Education Caucus chairperson.

View the full memo at arpanel.org.

Arkansas Public Policy Panel is a statewide organization dedicated to achieving social and economic justice by organizing citizen groups around the state, educating and supporting them to be more effective and powerful, and linking them with one another in coalitions and networks. The Panel seeks to bring balance to the public policy process in Arkansas.

The Arkansas Citizens First Congress is a coalition of grassroots communities and allies working together to establish a strong public voice to influence political and policy decisions and ensure accountability.

Arkansas should delay the start of virtual school this fall until we can ensure that every student has access to a quality virtual learning opportunity. The resumption of in-person learning should be delayed until every Arkansas school district can meet the minimum health recommendations of the Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

It is a moral and constitutional obligation of the state to provide an adequate and equitable education that is safe for all students and staff. Arkansas is simply not prepared to meet those standards.

Arkansas falls far short on most of these minimum standards that public health officials tell us must be met in order to open schools safely. To reopen schools safely we would need:

• Declining numbers of COVID-19 positive cases; but Arkansas has sharply rising numbers of positive COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

• A positivity rate of under 5 percent for testing; but Arkansas’s positivity rate is over 10 percent.

• Large scale rapid testing capacity; but Arkansas does not have sufficient tests, tests are taking too long, and we are far short of the contact tracing capacity needed to contain the pandemic.

• A safe social distance of 5-6 feet for classrooms and buses, playgrounds, and cafeterias; but Arkansas schools and buses are not equipped to distance students sufficiently. We do not have the workforce of educators nor the space to accommodate smaller class sizes.

• Adequate air ventilation and filtering in schools and buses; but many of our facilities are aging and lack reliable air conditioning, ventilation, and air filtering.

• Mandatory masks — Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson implemented this week a mask mandate in most public settings.

Arkansas is also not prepared to meet our constitutional obligations to provide every student an equal educational opportunity no matter where they live. Many families do not have internet access or proper equipment and support to learn in an online setting.

Many Arkansas school districts have not followed the Arkansas Board of Education’s recommendation for establishing a Ready For Learning Committee composed of all stakeholders i.e. parents, students, teachers, school personnel, health care departments, and community leaders.

The Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the Citizens First Congress Education Caucus, which is composed of community leaders from around the state, recommends the creation of an Adequacy and Equity in COVID-19 Task Force made up of parents, educators, students and diverse stakeholders.

State-provided paid family leave may be essential for those who need to stay home to help their children with distant learning or care for a family member who has become infected.

Arkansas leaders have left parents, students, and educators with a terrible choice. Returning to school in person when we are certain we cannot meet the minimum health guidelines nearly guarantees more people will get sick, suffering long-lasting health consequences and death. Returning to virtual school right now ensures that some students will simply be left behind. Keeping students out of school presents its own set of risks and consequences.

Our response to this pandemic must be similar to the all-out response to major disasters such as fires, hurricanes, or tornadoes. The difference is that this pandemic is ongoing, day after day, with no immediate end in sight. We will not see a return to normal for months — and possibly years — and must put into place the conditions, people, and tools to respond. The cost of failure to respond will be much greater even than the cost these actions require.

These emergency steps to manage the COVID-19 crisis impact on Arkansas students will require immediate action to implement, and major investments of resources to support. Adequate and equitable education is not only a moral responsibility of the state, but it is also a constitutional guarantee to every child in Arkansas. We cannot fail them