Friday is expected to be the final day of a special session that started Wednesday to consider changes to a state law banning mask mandates.
House members did not take action on bills Thursday (Aug. 5) aimed at changing the state’s policy as two proposals stalled in the House Public Health Committee. Both bills would have allowed public school boards or a governing body to implement a mask mandate for students under 12 years old as specified by the governor’s call. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has argued that children under 12 cannot be vaccinated and need all methods of protection, including masks, as they return to school this fall.
Senators did not conduct a formal hearing of a proposal that would have allowed students to transfer from school districts if they disagreed with that district’s mask policy. Invoking Senate rules that require a 24-hour waiting period for newly filed legislation to be considered, Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, quickly dismissed the Senate Education Committee before public testimony could be taken.
Meanwhile, city of Little Rock officials announced a new mask ban in public buildings. Friday morning, a Pulaski Co. judge will consider a temporary injunction on the state’s mask law as it pertains to restrictions in public schools.
The swirling controversies over how the state should respond to the surging Delta variant of COVID-19 showcased the variety of public opinion that has led to the divisions on the issue.
School is set to start in about two weeks. The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement released data Thursday that shows 140 Arkansas school districts have COVID-19 infection rates of 50 or more new known infections per 10,000 district residents over a 14-day period, up from 100 a week ago. The Marion school district, which opened over a week ago, has already had to quarantine more than 740 students and staff due to COVID-19 contact.
Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, who did not stake a position on keeping or changing the mask mandate ban, told reporters the special session will end on Friday.
“At this point, I don’t see any other options,” he said. “If there was a strong consensus that developed, I’d be open to that, but I don’t see that.”
Shepherd also said he doesn’t favor an extension of the session to consider additional legislation not on the call from the governor. A two-thirds vote of both chambers would be needed to tackle legislation not on the governor’s call.
“I am disappointed by the action of the House Public Health Committee today. It is conservative, reasonable and compassionate to allow local school districts to protect those students who are under 12 and not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Gov. Hutchinson, who advocated for the change to state law.
“The cases and quarantines at the Marion School District during the last week illustrate the urgency of action. If we are going to have a successful school year, then the local school districts need to have flexibility to protect those that are at risk,” Hutchinson added.
“I told y’all we are winning,” tweeted Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, who was the lead sponsor on the state mask mandate ban. He has opposed making any changes to the ban. “The days of big government mandates over the will of the people are done. We are fighting back, and we will stand for the people of Arkansas. Welcome to a new, better day in our state.”
The main legislation that will reach the governor’s desk for signature is a bill to affirm the decision made by the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services director to end the state’s participation in a number of federal unemployment benefit programs: Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) programs.
A state judge ruled in late July the state did not have the authority to opt out of the federal programs. Though the decision is on appeal, the new law passed during the special session is aimed at clarifying legislative intent on ending participation in the pandemic unemployment assistance programs.
Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray said the special session’s inaction was a failure in Republican leadership. Republicans hold 78 of 100 House seats and 27 of 35 Senate seats.
“Arkansas’ failure to have any type of plan is exceedingly apparent when you look at what other states, including those with Republican leadership, are doing to protect their citizens. Utah is providing N95 masks to every child this school year. Louisiana is directing people to wear masks in public indoor settings, including a mandate for K-12 and college students. Arkansas, courtesy of a Republican Party of Arkansas that seems to glorify extremes and not support those in their own party who want to do something reasonable, is choosing to do nothing for its citizens,” he said.
Editor’s note: Marine Glisovic, senior political reporter for KATV News, contributed to this report.