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 on Friday reported 1,458 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, the fourth time this week it has set a new record for virus hospitalizations.
“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.
Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced Friday that she’s appealing Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox’s Aug. 6 preliminary injunction against the mandate ban. Fox ruled the ban violated the Arkansas Constitution.
The Republican leaders of the House and Senate, who were named as defendants in the lawsuit, also announced Friday that they hired a separate attorney to represent them in the case. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has said he regrets signing the ban and agrees with Fox’s ruling, has hired a separate attorney to represent him in the lawsuit.
Fox blocked the law hours after the majority-Republican Legislature left the prohibition in place despite Hutchinson’s call to roll it back for some schools.
“I am not surprised by the number of districts implementing mask mandates, and applaud the local school boards for making that tough decision,” Hutchinson said Friday. “The local option is the reason I asked the Legislature to change the law.”
Districts approving bans said they’re needed to prevent widespread quarantines of students and staff when outbreaks 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 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 told the Siloam Springs School Board before it rejected a mandate Thursday night.
The state on Friday reported more than 3,000 new virus cases and 36 COVID-19 deaths. There are only 22 intensive care unit beds available in the state, according to the Department of Health. Arkansas’ virus hospitalizations increased by 62 since Thursday. There are 515 COVID-19 patients in the state’s ICUs and 296 on ventilators.
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.