Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is underway in Arkansas. Distribution of these long-awaited vaccines will take place in phases, with the first round given to health care workers who work in settings that have a high-risk for exposure to the virus, as well as long-term care residents.
The next round will be allocated to essential workers, identified as “daycare workers, workers in K-12 and Higher Education, food industry (meatpacking and grocery), correctional two workers, utilities, truck drivers, and essential government and infrastructure workers, etc.”
Our educators are essential. I value the influence that they have on our kids and recognize that access to education is imperative for Arkansas’ future. Quality education is a must for the health of our economy and the quality of life for every resident in the state. I am committed to ensuring that our teachers and schools receive the support they need, and I urge my fellow legislators to do the same.
Because education is one of my top priorities in the Arkansas Senate, I wanted to hear from teachers and administrators to better understand how they feel about having access to the vaccine. I was pleased to know Gina Windle, Chief of Staff at the Arkansas Department of Education, Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, shared my feelings of encouragement for the future.
“Before joining the Department of Education, I previously worked in a district for over 22 years in various roles. I can’t imagine not being able to see my kids or my staff. Knowing that students are not able to interact with the adults that they have grown to love so much at school has been very concerning to all of us,” she told me.
Mrs. Windle continues, “On the flip side. Learning is still going on. We’ve seen some great Zoom lessons and kids love seeing their classmates and teachers, whether in person or virtually. Districts statewide have had the chance to participate in some normal, routine activities, such as football and basketball, that have been morale boosters for everyone. Overall, we’ve had as successful a semester as we could have considering that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic.”
With all the varying degrees of difficulties that COVID-19 introduced this year, the Department of Education has given school districts the flexibility to decide how to best facilitate learning and operations based on the local community data. ADE administrators talk to school leaders every day, and emotions vary based on the hotspots. Even though districts have onsite operational requirements, they have the flexibility to modify those as needed based on the health of their communities.
There are concerns from leaders at the department regarding the future of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. The state has been using CARES Act funding to reimburse COVID-related staff leave, PPE purchases, and meal services. This is not a state-level decision, but officials at the department of education are working with various legislative offices to leverage and secure funding for the districts.
I also gained considerable insight from Riley Cook, a seventh grade Social Studies teacher at Marion Junior High School. She reminded me of all the problematic aspects she and other teachers have to face daily and how essential our educators are.
“As a teacher this year, I feel like I’m failing all my kids, whether it’s face-to-face or virtual,” Mrs. Cook explained to me. “We weren’t given a choice between in-person and virtual, so it’s been hard juggling the two types of teaching that are happening simultaneously. While our district did switch to a 2 p.m. dismissal to try to accommodate some of the workloads, nothing about how we’re operating right now is ideal nor allows us to be everything we need to be to all of our students during this time. We’re essentially working two jobs when we’re only being paid for one. I also have elderly parents who are immunocompromised, and I have to go out of my way to not be physically close to my students as much as possible for the sake of my family’s health. That’s not how I like teaching, but that’s the choice I have to make.”
She is hopeful with vaccines on the horizon and says she is eager to get hers as soon as possible. She also pointed out a potential silver lining from COVID-19.
“Our public education system has been needing a facelift for a long time, and maybe this is our chance to modify, improve, and change the way education looks going forward. If we do it the right way, this could be a good opportunity for us to move in a positive direction. This starts with providing resources to schools and districts throughout the state in an equitable way. Unless Arkansas changes how we assess and fund our districts and makes a shift to a more equitable process, we’re not going to see the changes we need. There’s no reason a child going to school here in the Delta shouldn’t have access to the same opportunities, quality curriculum, and facilities as a child in Northwest Arkansas. How schools are awarded money from the state doesn’t take everything into account and isn’t equitable. It has to start here.”
So, what will the public school system look like as we get past the pandemic? Kids throughout the state have missed out on the quality learning they are used to, and it won’t be easy to get them back to school expectations. We will all have to work together to ensure we have a smooth transition back into our new normal regarding education.
Thank you to our teachers, administrators, school personnel, parents, and students, for all of the hard work you have put into this trying year. We’re all in this together.