Since its arrival in March, COVID-19 spread rapidly in Fort Smith. Schools closed their doors the last nine weeks of the 2019-2020 school year to prevent the spread of the virus. Following a push from Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, they reopened in late August for the 2020-2021 school year. This decision proved controversial among health officials and physicians because of the peak in COVID cases in early July.
“Of course that decision was very risky for the students as well as the teachers, but especially for the teachers, they are much more susceptible. For the students it was more about exposing their parents and grandparents, basically people who are not as young,” Baptist Health infectious diseases physician Dr. Raed Khairy said.
Now, nearly three months after re-opening, officials face the same concerns for the upcoming holiday season. The Arkansas Department of Health reports the number of COVID cases in the Fort Smith Public School District twice a week. Their reports underline one group COVID affects disproportionately: faculty and staff. Based on the ADH reports, FSPS faculty and staff have over double the percentage of COVID cases than do students. With COVID hospitalizations currently peaking in Arkansas (according to the ADH) and Coronavirus cases expected to increase at the same rate they are now throughout the winter (according to the CDC), many faculty and staff fear for their health.
“It is a concern that there are a lot of staff members out, I’m concerned for the students and teachers. It [the virus] became a mental stress, not just physical but mental. It was a mental game and you have to play to get through it and be resilient. And navigating teaching students brings on a lot of anxiety and pressure for teachers,” AP Language teacher Matthew Hominnick said.
Although the Fort Smith School Board plans to enact measures to decrease the spread of COVID, health officials worry they may not be enough for the months to come. Seeing countries, such as the United Kingdom, that flattened the curve and reopened now closing down again, some health officials say that schools need stricter guidelines and rulings to protect their staff and faculty.
“The problem is being in a closed place during winter when you cannot open windows and cannot have air circulation. I think opening up to virtual learning more as an option and enhancing virtual learning methods through implementing things such as live learning and really putting more into the virtual program is the way schools should go to keep their students and faculty safe,” Khairy said.