After hours of at times heated discussion during a called board meeting Monday (Aug. 9), the Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education said face coverings will be mandatory for students, employees and visitors in all FSPS buildings, vehicles and buses as the school year starts Aug. 16.
On Friday (Aug. 5) Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox granted a restraining order that temporarily blocks the state from enforcing the mask mandate ban, Act 1002, for the 2021-22 School Year.
The FSPS school board passed an amended resolution that will require face coverings by all students, employees and visitors in school buildings or vehicles when more than two people are present for 60 days or reversal of Fox’s decision. The resolution also allows Superintendent Dr. Terry Morawski to make exceptions to the mandate upon recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) and states that all students and employees and their families will be encouraged to get the COVID-19 vaccine and to wear masks per CDC & ADH recommendations.
The school board can decide prior to the 60-day timeline to extend or cancel the mandate.
“Of course if the ruling is overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court, (the mandate) will be immediately cancelled,” said Marshall Ney, FSPS attorney.
Arkansas is experiencing a public-health emergency due to COVID-19 and the new Delta variant has caused an increase in the number of children in Arkansas who have been hospitalized, placed on ventilators, and have lost their lives due to the virus, information provided to the school board said. COVID vaccines are available for those ages 12 and over, but children younger than 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Several citizens spoke prior to board business Monday night, both for and against mandatory mask rules for the school year, including two physicians speaking in favor of a mandate. Dr. Donald Sanders, an emergency room physician and father of an incoming kindergarten student, said masks are effective, protect children and teachers and are the simplest way to keep children in school without interruption. Sanders said he has had to send patients to Colorado and Dallas because Fort Smith hospitals are full.
“A patient who was sent to Dallas, died there without any family present,” Sanders said.
Aaron Ray, a parent of an FSPS elementary student, says, “I’d rather see children masked than in the hospital.”
While parents and an FSPS seventh-grader asked for the mandatory use of masks in school, other parents were vehemently against their requirement. Matthew Graham, a parent, said he believed mask mandates are a violation of citizen’s constitutional rights. Cara Mendoza said masks are purely experimental and her children will not partake in FDA research.
The board voted 5-2 for the mandate with board members Troy Ecklehoff and Matt Blaylock voting against the requirements.