First day of special session ends with uncertainty on mask policy

by Marine Glisovic ([email protected]) 1,332 views 

The 93rd General Assembly kicked off the start of the special session Wednesday (Aug. 4) to debate amending Act 1002 – a ban on mask mandates. Two bills were filed in the morning, but just one was debated in the afternoon.

Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, filed HB 1003 and presented it in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. Following a three-hour debate, Mayberry pulled her bill down to amend it and plans to run it again.

Her proposal as is would allow local school boards to implement a mask mandate based on the number of infections in their community. Using the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement’s data, a board could implement a mandate if they have 50 new infections per 10,000 residents in a 14-day period. A mandate would only apply to students under 12 years old as specified by the governor’s call.

The proposal would allow the board to implement the mandate for up to 60 days. Following the debate Mayberry said she would amend it to 30 days. Following that time, a board would have the option to reassess and place another mandate if necessary. Mayberry noted that in circumstances where students can spread out such as on the playground or in a gym that masks would not be required.

Despite an effort to make amendments, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said he didn’t believe this changed votes yet but conversations are on-going.

Along with Mayberry, Marion School District Superintendent Dr. Glen Fenter spoke in favor of the bill. Fenter’s district began the school year last week and has already had to quarantine 730 students and staff. He said 43 people have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Two days into our second week, we have 27 positive cases and have quarantined 562 as of last evening,” Fenter said. “My concern is this … I can’t teach our kids if they’re quarantined.”

Dr. Joe Thompson, executive director of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, confirmed that based on the infection rates at least 100 school districts would qualify for a mask mandate under Mayberry’s proposal.

Dr. Heather Young, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, said masks do not harm a child.

“We have not seen any children being hospitalized as a consequence of wearing a mask, but right now with this Delta variant we are seeing the rates of COVID positive children in our hospitals rising astronomically,” she said.

Arguments against the bill included that parents have the right to choose whether their student needs to wear a mask and that masks don’t work. Those supporting the bill, including medical professionals, argued masks help stop the spread and protect children.

Conservative gun rights activist, Jan Morgan, who has announced her candidacy against U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., in the GOP primary, spoke against Mayberry’s proposal.

“It is time that we stop mandating the lives of the people of this state,” Morgan said. “We can debate the efficacy of masks vs non-mask, vaccine vs non-vaccine, but what we cannot debate today is the individual right of a parent to decide what is in the best interest of his or her child.”

Following a motion made by Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock, for a do pass, Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, said he didn’t think the bill would pass out of committee and he had issues with it. Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Clarksville, said he would rather delay the beginning of the school year due to the widespread Delta variant, but wouldn’t vote for Mayberry’s bill. Ultimately, Allen withdrew his motion and Mayberry agreed to pull her bill and make amendments.

The second bill filed is SB 2, whose main sponsor is Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, would allow school districts to implement COVID-19 related policies including a mask mandate. Clark’s proposal would also allow parents to transfer their student to another school district because of COVID policies. The bill would allow transfers to public school districts, charter schools, home schooling, private schools or virtual academies. The funding associated with the student would also transfer.

Clark said his intent is to allow parents to transfer their student if the school doesn’t implement policies addressing the pandemic, but the bill also allows a parent to request a transfer if a mask mandate is implemented. He said parents should have the local control.

SB 2 is on the Senate Education Committee’s agenda for Thursday and that meeting starts at 9 a.m.