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Superintendent Urges Arkansas Lawmakers To Let Local Districts Decide On Masks

Marion School Superintendent Dr. Glen Fenter speaks with reporters Wednesday before the start of the special legislative session.
Michael Hibblen

As members of the Arkansas General Assembly began a special session Wednesday to consider a proposal by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to revise a ban on mask mandates, the head of an east Arkansas school district said the number of students in quarantine because of possible exposure to the coronavirus had grown to more than 750.

The Marion School District implemented a hybrid schedule this year, starting classes earlier than most other districts on July 26. Since that time, Superintendent Dr. Glen Fenter said he has been alarmed to see a significant percentage of the roughly 4,000 students in his district now at risk of COVID-19.

Before lawmakers convened the session, he arrived at the Capitol ready to warn members that other districts will likely see similar occurrences.

“If you extrapolate our circumstances into the rest of the state, I’m not sure that our folks are ready to understand exactly how big an issue this can become and how rapidly it will occur,” Fenter told reporters. “In eight days to have what we’ve experienced occur really should be scary for lots of other folks doing what we’re doing.”

Hutchinson’s call to amend Act 1002, which was backed by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, has faced resistance from legislators. Republican leaders of both the House and Senate have said there won’t be the votes to pass a revised bill, which needs a simple majority. A two-thirds vote will be needed for an emergency clause to enact the legislation immediately after being signed by the governor.

Fenter argues this shouldn’t be a partisan issue and that each school district should decide whether to mandate masks based on their own circumstances.

“This is a health crisis that has somehow or other become politicized,” he said. “We’ve got to make certain that whatever happens puts us back in a position to have some local control as to how we deal with those crises in our local communities.”

Later in the day, Fenter testified to the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, echoing those thoughts.

Anna Morshedi of Little Rock demonstrates outside the Capitol alongside her children Miles, 8, and Molly, 6.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News
Anna Morshedi of Little Rock demonstrates outside the Capitol alongside her children Miles, 8, and Molly, 6.

As members of the legislature were arriving before the start of the session, Anna Morshedi and her children, ages six and eight, were waving signs on the steps of the Capitol. She is calling for districts to be allowed to require masks if warranted.

“I am a scared and concerned mom and both of my children are too young to get the vaccine,” Morshedi said. “I feel like the only tool that we have is to mask up, and without that, schools are going to be very scary. And the most important job as a parent is to make sure your children are safe.”

The session is expected to last three days.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
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