Bill That Amends Arkansas Mask Mandate Ban Stalls In House Committee
A bill that would allow Arkansas school districts to implement mask mandates if they meet a COVID-19 case threshold is being reworked to address the concerns of some lawmakers. Members of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee spent just under three hours Wednesday discussing and listening to public comments on the proposed legislation.
According to the bill, a school district must have a 14-day COVID-19 infection rate of at least 50 new infections per 10,000 residents based on data published by either the Arkansas Department of Health or the Arkansas Center for Health improvement.
Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, is the bill’s sponsor and said she was open to whatever suggestions lawmakers had if it helped pass the legislation.
"I’m willing to work on this, take feedback. I don’t know what this committee wants, but I would love the opportunity to work on some amendments based on feedback and come back with something that might satisfy a few more people," Mayberry said.
The proposed change to the state’s current mask mandate ban is one of two agenda items for the special legislative session which began Wednesday after a proclamation issued by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. He announced his intention to call the special session last week, saying school districts in Arkansas should be allowed to make individual choices regarding mask mandates because kids younger than 12 currently cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19.
Six citizens spoke against the bill, while three spoke for it. Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, though not a member of the committee, was one of the three to speak in its favor.
"How in the world we can leave this special session without putting something in place to ensure that the only thing we are aware of to date that can protect [children] and prevent them from contracting this virus that they cannot be protected by with a vaccine, would be criminal and an abdication of the duties that we have sworn to uphold," Flowers said.
In speaking against the bill, Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, said he was more in favor of delaying the start of school to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"I think that’d be way better. It’s a way to make sure that our health resources don’t get stretched too thin, which we’re already told by every hospital administrator in the state that they’re getting stretched too thin," Pilkington said.
Before Mayberry ultimately pulled down the bill, Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, said he was conflicted about whether to vote for it.
"I do not like many aspects of this bill and right at the moment, I don’t know how I’m gonna vote. But I don’t want to be responsible for a child being hospitalized or potentially dying," Eubanks said.
A different Senate bill that would allow schools to implement mask mandates, but also allows students to transfer from their assigned school districts, is scheduled to be heard Thursday. The special session is expected to last through Friday.