Hospitalizations See Record Spike, School Start Delayed

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LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas reported its largest one-day increase in hospitalizations from the coronavirus on Thursday as Gov. Asa Hutchinson delayed the start of the school year by nearly two weeks. 

Hutchinson, however, said he remained committed to reopening classrooms next month even as the state saw one of its highest increases in new virus cases since the pandemic began in March.

The Health Department said 394 people in the state are hospitalized because of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, an increase of 36 since Wednesday. The state reported at least 26,052 people have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 806 new confirmed cases since Wednesday. 

The true number of cases in Arkansas is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick. 

Hutchinson announced the start of state’s school year would be delayed from Aug. 13 until Aug. 26 at the latest to give districts more time to prepare for the safety measure and other changes needed because of the virus. Hutchinson has said he wants schools to open for on-site education, but with plans to shift to other options if needed.

“We’re fully committed to school, we’re committed to on-site instruction,” Hutchinson said. 

Hutchinson said the state Education Department is also releasing guidance to local districts on how to respond if there’s a positive case in one of their schools. The response could include switching to remote learning if there’s a substantial spread.

The state, however, is leaving it up to individual school districts to decide whether to require teachers or students to wear face masks.

Hutchinson announced the delay the same day federal health officials said they wouldn’t revise their guidelines for reopening schools, despite criticism from President Donald Trump. The president has threatened to withhold federal fundsfrom schools that don’t reopen.

The Arkansas Education Association said there needs to be more detailed guidance and funding to ensure the state’s public schools can open safely.

“The state’s guidance on outbreaks in our schools is acknowledgment that we are attempting to send students and educators into an unsafe situation,” Tracey-Ann Nelson, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “This danger is compounded by the state’s lack of coordinated guidance to districts as they attempt to plan amid constantly changing guidelines that have somehow become politicized.” 

Arkansas’ virus cases have dramatically risen since May, when the state began allowing businesses that closed because of the pandemic to reopen. Hospitalizations because of COVID-19 have risen more than 261% since Memorial Day.

Thursday’s one-day increase was the highest in the state since it reported 878 new cases last week.

The department said 5,751 of the state’s total cases are active, meaning they don’t include people who have died or recovered. Four more people have died from COVID-19, bringing the state’s total fatalities to 309.

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