Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research surveying schools on mask mandates

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,086 views 

The Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR) submitted a survey to school districts Wednesday (Sept. 1), asking about their COVID numbers and requesting that their answers be returned the same day.

In an email sent to various superintendents on Wednesday, BLR said the final results of the survey could not be provided to districts because the information was being collected for a specific legislative member. It said BLR had to tried to collect the information at the agency level, but quarantine numbers aren’t being captured elsewhere.

Marty Garrity, director of the Bureau of Legislative Research, said she could not comment on any such requests or how the information might be used. The bureau staffs legislative committees, drafts bills for legislators, and conducts research on a variety of topics discussed in legislative hearings. It is nonpartisan and works for all 135 state senators and representatives.

The House and Senate Education Committees meet next Tuesday, Sept. 7, but the agenda does not document any matter pertaining to masks in schools. Those committees along with the House and Senate Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development Committees also meet Sept. 8 at the Hot Springs Convention Center, but an agenda for that joint meeting has not been posted.

The survey circulated today asks schools to answer eight questions:

  • As of today, do you have a policy mandating employees and students wear masks? (Participants can answer “Yes, full requirement”; “Yes, partial requirement”; or “No”)
  • When did the current mask policy take effect?
  • How many students do you have in your district today?
  • How many students in your district are positive with COVID-19 today?
  • How many students in your district are not in school today because they have been quarantined due to COVID-19?
  • How many employees do you have in your district today?
  • How many employees in your district are positive with COVID-19 today?
  • How many employees in your district are not in school today because they have been quarantined due to COVID-19?

The answer to the first question is available on the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement’s website. The health care policy organization has been keeping up with the number of school districts and charter schools enacting mask mandates. As of Aug. 31, about 141 school districts and charter schools have enacted full or partial mask requirements, and about 120 have decided not to do so.

Dr. Mike Hernandez, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said the information the survey is seeking would be good to have. School districts could benefit from knowing how the safety protocols are working.

“Right now, [we’re] not really getting a good picture statewide as to how that’s going,” he said.

Hernandez said AAEA’s help was not requested with this survey, but it has often tried to help BLR with surveys in the past. He said he would be hesitant to advise districts not to work with BLR, but AAEA would advise them to work with their local legislators to see the aggregate results.

“I think it would be better if there was an ability for that information to be shared back with the districts so they can use that to make some decisions that might be in the best interests of their safety protocols that they have in place,” he said.

The survey comes a day after Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, and Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, filed a motion in the Arkansas Supreme Court asking for an immediate stay of a preliminary injunction by Judge Tim Fox blocking the enforcement of Act 1002.

That law, passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, prohibits schools and other state agencies from enforcing mask mandates. Fox issued the injunction against enforcing the law Aug. 6. Hutchinson has said he now regrets signing the bill and has retained outside counsel despite being a defendant in the case.

“The Act 1002 Injunction is causing irreparable harm because it prevents Act 1002, enacted by the representatives of the citizens of Arkansas, from being effective,” the motion by attorney Randall Bynum, who represents Hickey and Shepherd, says. “As a practical matter, it interferes with the legislature’s efforts to keep the peace and encourage the remaining unvaccinated segment of the population to get vaccinated without using mandates. There is a proliferation of disputes at the local level about local mask mandates, which has resulted in unnecessary dissension.”