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Arkansas health experts urging safety as students return amid COVID surge

The threat to schools is so bad that ARAAP put out a message to all schools in the state – get masks back on kids.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — As students across central Arkansas begin to return to the classroom, there's something more than homework health experts are worried they may take home.

"Kids are, if not already in school, about to be in school, they need to make decisions quickly," Dr. Gary Wheeler, former president of the Arkansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said. "It was clear at that point we were about to enter this accelerated phase of infection, driven by Omicron."

The Omicron variant continues to dominate new positive cases in the state, and it has Dr. Wheeler and the rest of ARAAP on edge. The threat to schools is so bad, he said, that they put out a message to all schools in the state – get masks back on kids.

"If we want to keep them in school, we have to keep them uninfected as much as possible," Dr. Wheeler said. "That's not going to be completely achievable, but we need to do the best we can."

COVID-19 has already impacted parts of the school year. The North Little Rock School District announced it was moving it's 7th and 8th grade campus to remote learning for Tuesday and Wednesday. 

A letter sent out by Superintendent Gregory Pilewski said the reason for the switch was "due to the number of positive cases and the number of individuals in quarantine due to exposure."

That statement goes on to say that district administrators will continue to monitor when it's safe for students to return to campus.

"This is a new threat, the Omicron is a highly infectious virus," Dr. Joe Thompson, President and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, said. "It's going to target younger and younger people, including our children, and unfortunately, it's hitting us at a time when we're coming back together in schools for the start of the spring semester."

Dr. Thompson said what ARAAP did was right – masks in schools is a good idea, he said, and it could help drive off a spring surge.

"It's going to stretch our schools," he said. "If we don't get control of it, the spike is going to continue to go higher and higher."

Wheeler said it's difficult to say exactly when the spike could go away, but there's one thing he knows for certain – what they're asking is as basic as it gets to keeping kids safe.

"What there is no question about is the extent of disease that's present in the state right now, and the need for us to do whatever we can," he said.

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