Arkansas City schools will take a 10-day wellness and mental health break, hoping to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout the district.

The school board approved adding Friday, Monday and Tuesday to the Thanksgiving break starting Nov. 24 at a special meeting Tuesday night. All school sports and activities, however, can continue as normal. Students will return to class Nov. 29.

Superintendent Ron Ballard said the extended break would be the equivalent of the standard 10-day quarantine.

“We have COVID going on at a pace that takes us all the way back to last year, and perhaps above in terms of the speed that it is increasing.” he said.

As of Wednesday, 24 staff members and 62 students had active COVID-19 infections and 387 individuals were in quarantine. Another 81 students and 12 staff considered close contacts are being tested daily to they can stay in school.

Notes provided to board members on Tuesday said the district is testing 169 people per day.

“We are well beyond capacity to test and/or to cover/substitute in-house or with outside substitute support,” Ballard said.

The school system built an extra 10.72 days into the calendar and will use three of them as “wellness” days.

Two elementary schools, IXL and Adams, already have been closed due to staffing issues caused by COVID. Complete district-wide numbers are available at the USD 470 website.

Board member Lori Barnes said that district staff are worn out and need the break, which she emphasized is not a COVID shutdown.

Ballard said that further testing will not be required for most students when they return to school, because they will have gone beyond the period of time for infection. He also said that all employees, including bus drivers, will be fully compensated for the days off.

The dramatic move triggered plenty of response on social media. Several parents called it an overreaction and lamented the lost school time. Others supported the decision.

“It’s about time I see a school district take a few extra days for mental health days,” Kaitlin Shade said.

Some criticized the decision to allow sports and activities continue while instruction stopped.

“If this is to be the equivalent of a ten day quarantine, all sports and activities should also be cancelled,” Deb Raines said.

USD 470’s infection rate has been among the highest in districts across the state with at least 2,000 students, according to state health officials. Ark City’s 16.9 cases per 1,000 students was below Winfield’s rate of 18 and Buhler’s 25.2. Those figures, however, are a glimpse backward, covering a two week period of Oct. 28 through Nov. 10.

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