After a lengthy discussion, the Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education on Monday (Sept. 27) voted four to three to extend the mask mandate in all its school buildings for an additional 30 days.
The FSPS school board approved a resolution about masks at a special called board meeting Aug. 9. The resolution requires face coverings by all students, employees and visitors in school buildings or vehicles when more than two people are present. The requirement was put into effect for 60 days. That mandate was set to expire Oct. 8.
The extension will allow district administrators time to come up with a phasing process that incorporates Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) data and recommendations and gives more flexibility to the superintendent to lift the mandate if and when the number of those infected with the virus in the community declines.
ACHI school district data represents known infections per 10,000 residents over 14 days. Dr. Joe Thompson, ACHI president and CEO, has recommended that if mandates were to be dropped a district should have no more than 30 new known infections per 10,000 residents over 14 days. Fort Smith has consistently stayed at over 60 known new infections per 10,000 residents over 14 days since Aug. 23, Superintendent Dr. Terry Morawski told the board Monday during the board’s regular meeting.
Board members Dalton Person, Troy Ecklehoff and Matt Blaylock voted against the resolution. Person wanted to give more flexibility to the superintendent to lift or reinstate the mandate as he sees fit based on the rate of known new infections. Ecklehoff and Blaylock both asked for the mandate to be allowed to expire Oct. 8 and for the board to revisit the data 30 days after that point.
Morawski told the board that since the start of the school year in August, there have been 459 new positive cases of COVID-19 in the school district. Of those, 71 were staff members and 388 were students. Of those, five students were exposed to the virus in the school. All others were exposed to the virus outside of the school.
Board member Dee Blackwell said the statistics show that the mask mandate is working inside the school and allowing the school board to fulfill its mission of providing a safe and equitable education for all students and to keep all the schools open.
“We have very low on-campus transmission. They are spreading it in the community. They are not spreading it in the classroom,” Person said in agreement.