TEXARKANA --Local school districts and colleges have been handling the challenges created by the Omicron variant in varying manners, with the Texarkana Arkansas School District closing schools for on-site instruction until Jan. 18 and Southern Arkansas University revising its health policies on campus.
TASD announced on Monday that all district campuses will be temporarily closed starting Tuesday and ending Monday, Jan. 17. Students will return to campuses on Tuesday, Jan. 18.
All TASD students PreK through 12th grade will use Alternative Method of Instruction days, which may include instructional paper packets or digital learning.
"Great care and research went into this decision and we regret the hardships this will cause for some of our families," according to the press release from the district Monday. "We believe that this is the right step to take for the health and safety of our families, employees, and the community."
This comes after other Arkansas-side school districts like Hope and Spring Hill made similar moves. Hope moved to virtual instruction through Wednesday, and Spring Hill returned to face-to-face instruction on Monday.
A record 226 Arkansas public school districts, or 97% of the state's 234 contiguous school districts, have COVID-19 infection rates of 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 district residents over a 14-day period, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement said Monday.
ACHI has recommended the implementation of masking requirements for all staff and students in all schools across the state.
TASD's board of trustees approved a measure to reinstate a mask mandate while indoors in a special meeting Monday evening. These guidelines will be reevaluated in February.
Dr. Loren Robinson, chief medical officer for the CHRISTUS St. Michael Health System, said vaccination rates in schools will play a major role in how seriously COVID affects daily operations.
"Depending on what the vaccination rate is in our (schools) in the area, I think that's what's going to determine how much of a disruption we see," Robinson said. "In places where there's not as many vaccinated people, you're going to see that disruption. And I think that's what we see playing out on the Texarkana, Arkansas, side of the school districts.
"Not only for the students -- I think a lot of times, people think of a college, they think of how many students are vaccinated. But you also obviously have to think about your faculty and staff because that's how your day-to-day operations continue."
Robinson said this trend could potentially continue into the Texas-side schools, and that it will be essential to have enough substitute teachers to cover for any teachers who have to miss time due to COVID.
"I think you have to set a threshold," she said. "I think that's the thing that people probably haven't exactly done. And I think that's why it leads to these cancellations."
As far as Arkansas-side colleges, SAU recently announced it will open the spring semester with a mask mandate in effect for classrooms, shared offices and when in transit within buildings. Although face masks will not be required in athletic venues during events, face masks are being highly encouraged throughout campus.
Signs will be posted outside individual offices of those employees requesting mask usage in personal spaces, and the Task Force is requesting visitors to comply with these requests. SAU will provide disposable masks for students, faculty and staff.
The University of Arkansas at Hope-Texarkana has not made any changes and is still having face-to-face instruction as of Monday afternoon.
No Texas-side school districts or colleges have made any announcements about campus closures or mask requirements as of Monday afternoon.
A Texarkana College spokesperson said the institution is staying up to date on daily campus COVID counts and has reinforced campus protocols, encouraging mask wearing indoors on campus.
A Texas A&M University-Texarkana spokesperson said the staff has been operating on a skeleton crew last week and this week, trying to limit the number of people on campus since the case count locally seems to still be increasing. But all staff members are planning on being back on campus next week when the semester starts.
They're also making arrangements to test dorm students before they move back into their residence halls, as well as encouraging mask-wearing and vaccines/boosters.