At least 73 Arkansas school districts have enacted mask mandates as of noon Thursday, while 38 have decided against the mandates, according to a list compiled by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI).
The ACHI also advocates for school district leaders to require mask use and push for vaccinations. Part of the ACHI statement includes a note on delaying the start of the school year.
“School boards may also consider requesting a waiver from the Department of Education to delay the start of the school year to ensure the opportunity to appropriately consider available mitigation strategies, and the sufficiency of those strategies, as well as to increase the time for protection to develop among those recently vaccinated,” ACHI noted.
Among the school districts enacting a mandate is the state’s largest, Springdale. Its school board voted Aug. 10 to require face coverings for students in grades K-7, while masks are optional for older students, for staff and for visitors. The policy was set to expire after Sept. 14.
Other large school districts that have chosen to enact mask mandates include Fort Smith, Jonesboro, Bentonville, Fayetteville, West Memphis, Bryant and El Dorado.
The Fort Smith School Board voted Aug. 9 to enact a mask mandate for all students, employees and visitors for 60 days, with the option to extend or cancel the mandate before that time period ends.
School districts that have decided against a mask mandate include Beebe, Benton, Cabot, Jacksonville North Pulaski, and Sheridan.
The El Dorado School District’s decision to require masks is noteworthy because it is located in the Senate district represented by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, the lead sponsor of Act 1002. That was the law passed this spring prohibiting state and local governments, including schools, from requiring masks. Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the veto-proof bill into law but then called legislators into special session Aug. 4, asking them to amend the law. He wanted to let school boards have the option of requiring masks to be worn by children under age 12 who are too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The bill failed to advance out of committee.
The Little Rock and Marion school districts sued along with two parents and Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde and Sheriff Eric Higgins. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox declared the law unconstitutional and blocked the state from enforcing the ban until a trial can be held. Among his reasonings was that the law discriminates among children in public and private schools, where masks can be required.
Marion was one of the 31 districts that so far has approved a mask mandate. The district, which started school in July, has already had 105 students and 13 staff members test positive, resulting in 1,364 people being quarantined, according to its website Thursday.
The Little Rock School Board was to have a special called board meeting to discuss a mask requirement at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 12.
Among higher education institutions, masks are now required at the University of Arkansas System, University of Central Arkansas and Arkansas Tech University.
Link here to see the ACHI list.
Editor’s note: The headline and opening paragraph have been updated to include actions taken as of Friday, Aug. 13, 2021.