The Lake Hamilton, Mountain Pine and Cutter Morning Star school districts joined Fountain Lake and Hot Springs' Main Street Visual & Performing Arts Magnet School in deciding to finish out the remainder of the week by offering AMI Virtual Learning classes.
Students and staff will not return to campus until Tuesday following the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday. Lakeside and Jessieville will continue to have classes on campus as usual, officials said.
The move to Alternative Methods of Instruction off-campus follows the recent surge of the COVID-19 omicron variant across the nation, which has caused a shortage of school staffing in addition to students missing classes.
Video not playing? Click here https://www.youtube.com/embed/hMmmpBrSf6k
At the end of last week, Lake Hamilton reported 47 new student cases and 10 staff, with 109 students quarantined and five staff quarantined. Since the beginning of the school year, the district has had 219 cumulative new cases among students and 36 staff.
As of the end of the day Tuesday, Mountain Pine reported 32 students and staff positive, with approximately 25 quarantined, while Cutter Morning Star had 43 total active positive cases, with 118 in quarantine.
Lake Hamilton Superintendent Shawn Higginbotham said the move to AMI is due to the increase of COVID-19 cases and quarantines among staff and students. The district will utilize two AMI days and will shift to virtual learning this morning.
"Staffing issues across the board were the main deciding factor to utilize AMI days for Thursday and Friday," he said Wednesday.
According to a Facebook post by the district, during the five days off-site, all students and staff are strongly encouraged to avoid large group gatherings, as well as to follow social distancing protocols. As with Mountain Pine and Cutter Morning Star, all athletic and extracurricular events and activities have been postponed during this time and are scheduled to resume on Tuesday.
Higginbotham noted that while the district does not have a mask mandate in place currently, it "strongly encourages all students and staff to wear masks indoors when social distancing isn't possible."
"The staffing issue has gradually gotten worse each day since returning from the break," he said. "From classroom teachers, cafeteria staff, and bus drivers, we simply do not have enough substitutes to cover the positions needed for in-person learning."
Mountain Pine Superintendent Bobby Applegate said the district was down to two custodians and three cafeteria workers Wednesday morning.
"We had teachers that were testing positive left and right the last couple of days," he said. "We were understaffed, so we made the decision to go AMI. We're hoping that given this five or six days off that, you know, if our teachers will do what's right, they will hopefully get better and we won't be having as big and widespread of an outbreak of this stuff. Yesterday our (COVID-19) point of contact (Denise Smith) was busy all day long testing kids and teachers, and the majority of them were positive yesterday."
Cutter Morning Star Superintendent Nancy Anderson said she had her school nurse call every student Wednesday, and that of the roughly 25% of the students absent, it was not COVID-related.
"We have a lot out, but what I'm saying is, it's not all COVID-related that are out," she said.
"We have some COVID cases, yes, and we have some quarantines, yes, but we also have the stomach flu, we have the flu, we have tonsillitis, we have sinus infections, so we have a whole gamut of stuff that's going on at our school. ... We've been able to pull teachers from other classrooms and we've been able to cover.
"I know some of the districts have had difficulty covering, you know, with subs. It's not that we have a sub in every classroom; We've had some challenges too, but because our classes, because we have so many absent, we've been able to pull different kids and different teachers and get them covered safely. Some school districts didn't have enough adults there and so it was kind of putting their -- it wasn't safe, is what I was told -- because they didn't have enough people to supervise their kids. That's not been the case for us."
Anderson said the district's school board has not discussed reissuing a mask mandate at this time.
The Hot Springs School District, at the end of the day Tuesday, had 158 student active positive cases and 49 staff. It announced Wednesday that its Main Street Visual & Performing Arts Magnet School would continue offering AMI classes Thursday and Friday. The district will still host its scheduled COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the HSSD Welcome Center Friday from 2-5 p.m.
The Lakeside School District, as of Tuesday night, reported 128 student active positive cases and 24 staff.
"Lakeside is planning to stay open," Superintendent Shawn Cook said Wednesday. "We feel like as long as we can stay staffed enough to take care of our kids and their needs we will do so. So far we have been able to get enough subs. We provide so many services that our students need. While they are here they are fed, educated and have access to our nurses, and all of the employees that are trained to take care of their specific needs. Approximately 90 percent of our teachers are vaccinated and our employees are my heroes. They are doing so many things to help our kids."
Cook noted that all of their employees are playing "key" roles during this time, and "putting our kids first every day."
"We want to keep our place open also for our parents in the workforce," he said.
"We want our health care workers to go to work and not have to stay home with their kids. All the workforce is being impacted and all help keep our society functioning. We need people working at grocery stores, delivery drivers and pretty much the workforce needs to be able to go to work and not have to stay at home with their kids.
"Every school has to do what they can with their situation. Some are in situations in which they do not have the staff and they are making decisions to close on-site instruction. It all depends on a school's specific situation. We absolutely know our kids truly need us so we will be open as long as we can take care of our kids. We know during this time some parents will keep their kids at home but so many want their kids at school because that is best for their child and their family. We just want to have school and take care of our kids."
The Jessieville School District, as of Tuesday night, had 15 student active positive cases and six staff, with 70 total quarantined. District Superintendent Melissa Speers said, as Wednesday, they are not looking at using AMI days unless they get to a point that they are in a bind for staffing. They are encouraging masks but do not have a mandate in place.