The smaller size of the Eureka Springs School District has helped it have relatively few numbers of Covid-19 infections among students and staff, High School Principal David Gilmore said.
“We went 54 days of school before we ever had a positive test,” Gilmore said. “We are blessed to be a small district so we can spread students out. When someone tests positive, it doesn’t usually require a lot of quarantining of other students and teachers. We’ve had a few cases among staff or teachers, but all our teachers are back now. We had our first spike around Halloween and another spike after Thanksgiving, both with student and teacher cases. Dealing with the Covid-19 threat has been overwhelming but we have been very fortunate.”
Gilmore said students and staff are following guidelines for wearing masks and watching social distance. He also said he feels most students perform better when they are on campus.
According to the Arkansas Department of Health Educational Institutions Report for Dec. 10, Eureka Springs School District had 10 active cases. Cumulative cases include 10 faculty/staff cases and 14 student cases. The cases have been confined to the high school and have not affected the middle and elementary schools.
Gilmore said the majority of people testing positive recently who attend or work at the high school came back the week before Dec. 14. In some cases, contact tracing was difficult because the cases were from student athletes or those in shop class who are around a lot of other students.
“We had to quarantine so many that it makes it look like a larger outbreak than it actually is,” Gilmore said. “If we have a student showing symptoms, we recommend they stay out of school and get tested. We are following the guidelines of the CDC. A nurse on campus is doing all the contact tracing and telling parents what rules have to be followed regarding quarantining, testing and watching symptoms.”
Around the country there have been concerns about a large number of students enrolled the previous school year, but who have been unaccounted for since the pandemic closed schools in the spring semester. Gilmore said they followed up to find out what happened to students from previous years who hadn’t been seen yet in the fall semester.
“We contacted those parents and found out what was going on,” Gilmore said. “Some older students decided to get GEDs. Some decided to home school. It didn’t work out well for a few who said they would home school. They came back later in the semester, so we are trying to get them caught up. We are very concerned about kids falling behind. The class time they missed the last quarter of the previous school year definitely got students behind. Quite honestly, we are doing our best to educate them, but our need to provide the virtual side of it slows down our pacing quite a bit.”
At the high school level, he expects this will be an issue for years to come. Recent testing found students did fairly well in English and reading but lagged behind previous years in math and science. Gilmore said math and science scores have taken a hit across the state.
The need to provide in-person and virtual learning has strained teachers. But Gilmore said they are rising to the challenge.
“The teachers are working really hard doing the best they can,” he said. “It is just a tough year for educators. We conquer and overcome, and do our best for the kids, whatever is necessary.”
Athletics have continued including basketball, but the crowd size watching the games has been severely reduced to 120. Family units can sit together but are asked to socially distance from other family groups.
“We will be gearing up for soccer and track in the spring,” Gilmore said. “Soccer is a good sport for us. It is one of our largest sports, but luckily that is an outdoor activity with lower risk.”
Gilmore said older students are more accustomed to an online format. But not all have the self-motivation to study at home. Gilmore said monitoring of some students early on showed they were watching television or playing video games instead of participating in the online classroom.
“You obviously can’t learn like that,” Gilmore said. “We started the year with about sixty students working online, about a third of the students, but that number dwindled dramatically. It just wasn’t working out with some. They weren’t learning as well. Some of the parents and students made decisions to come back to onsite learning. Now we are down now to about thirty-five virtual students.”
The technology allows images of virtual students at home to be projected up on the wall during the regular classroom session. Virtual students can ask questions.
“It is a live classroom setting at home,” Gilmore said. “All the work goes through Google Classroom, our learning management system. That is a little harder with younger students than older students. It did take teachers a while to learn synchronicity with online. But I don’t see distance learning going away. We will be adapting to students who decide to stay home in the future after the pandemic is over.”
The learning management system used for elementary students, SeeSaw, is more suitable for the younger students.
On Jan. 6 when students return from Christmas break, school will be letting out at 1:45 every Wednesday to allow teachers more time to address virtual learning. Students will have the ability to stay on campus until the usual time of 3 p.m., but buses will leave at 1:45. The additional time Wednesday afternoon will allow teachers to record instruction videos for students or work with virtual students.
According to statistics compiled by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, as of Dec. 11, there were 113 Arkansas school districts that have had 50 or more new known Covid-19 infections per 10,000 district residents over a 14-day period, up from 94 a week earlier.
Fifteen school districts, double the number a week earlier, had exceeded 100 new known infections per 10,000 district residents over a 14-day period. The population of the Green Forest School District was included in districts with the highest rates of infections.