Most Arkansas public school students under mask mandate
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Most Arkansas public school students will be required to wear masks when classes begin next week, following moves by dozens of districts in response to a judge blocking the state’s mask mandate ban.
At least 60 public school districts and charter schools have approved the requirements in the week since a judge prevented the state from enforcing a law banning schools and governmental entities from requiring masks. The requirements will cover at least half of the state’s 473,000 public school students.
The pace at which school districts have approved the requirements surprised even public health experts who say masks are needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, especially as the ultra-contagious delta variant fuels a surge in cases and hospitalizations. Arkansas this week reached a new record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations during the pandemic.
“They’re going to be in place as kids come back to school next week and I think those actions are going to prevent some superspreader events that would have occurred,” said Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.
Some form of mask mandates have been approved in the state’s 10 largest school districts. The largest, Springdale, approved a requirement, but only for students in kindergarten through 7th grade. The Little Rock School Board, which sued over the state’s mandate ban, voted Thursday to require masks be worn indoors by students and staff.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox on Aug. 6 issued a preliminary injunction against the mandate ban, ruling it violated Arkansas’ constitution. The ruling came hours after lawmakers rejected calls by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson to roll back the ban for some schools.
Hutchinson has said he regrets signing the ban into law and that he agrees with Fox’s ruling.
Districts approving bans said they’re needed to prevent widespread quarantines of students and staff when outbreaks do occur. They point to the Marion School District, where more than 1,000 students and staff have had to quarantine since classes began July 26. Marion has also approved a mandate since the judge’s ruling.
“We would be setting a student up for academic failure if it was necessary to send them home for weeks during the first month of school,” Cabot School District Superintendent Tony Thurman said in a video posted on the schools’ Facebook page after the district announced a 30-day mask requirement on Friday.
Supporters have also said the requirements are needed to protect children under the age of 12 who can’t currently be vaccinated against the virus.
“For our children, masks are an easy and tolerable way to bridge ourselves to when a vaccine is available for them,” a Bentonville pharmacist and mother told that city’s school board before it approved a mask mandate Wednesday.
As of Friday, the 5,400-student Benton School District in central Arkansas was the largest district in the state not requiring masks.
The requirements have drawn opposition from parents who say they should decide whether to make their children wear masks. Some have said they won’t comply with any mandates.
“If you decide to require this mandate and if we send our kids to school, they will be showing up without masks and it will be our instruction to them to not wear one,” one man opposed told the Siloam Springs School Board before it rejected a mandate Thursday night.
Mandates have also been issued by the state’s largest public universities. The University of Arkansas system’s governing board directed its campuses to impose mask requirements. Masks are also being required indoors by the University of Central Arkansas, Arkansas Tech University and Arkansas State University.
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