The Fort Smith School Board voted four to three during a called meeting Monday (Oct. 11) to end the district’s mandate requiring face coverings in the schools. The board voted Sept. 27 to extend a mandate put into effect before the school year started for an additional 30 days.
Members voting to drop the mandate were Matt Blaylock, Troy Ecklehoff, Susan McFerran, and Dalton Person. Voting to retain the mandate were Dee Blackwell, Yvonne Keaton-Martin, and Talicia Richardson.
The board approved a resolution about masks at a special called board meeting Aug. 9. The resolution required 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.
FSPS Superintendent Dr. Terry Morawski said at Monday’s meeting that 38.6% of staff responding to a survey by the district saying they supported removing the mask requirement as soon as possible. The remaining percentage of respondents were split with 27.4% supporting making masks optional once the district’s positivity rate is at yellow (29 or less cases per 10,000 residents over 14 days) as reported by the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) data. The other 34% supported continuing the mask requirement.
Morawski told the board that administration recommended removing the mask requirement because cases are dropping significantly in FSPS, the region and the state.
FSPS is in the orange ACHI category with 30-49 active cases of COVID among the school population. Morawski told the board the district’s numbers were 30 as of Oct. 4, just one above the yellow category of 20-29 students. 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.
Though the school district map on the ACHI website Monday night showed the district in the orange category with 46 active cases for the Oct. 4 report, it states there were only 30 new infections per 10,000 residents in the district.
The Arkansas Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard showed 295 active cases of the virus in Sebastian County Monday.
The board was also informed Monday that the district was named in a lawsuit concerning mask mandates. FSPS attorney Marshall Ney said if the mandate was dropped, Fort Smith would no longer be involved in the lawsuit. Board member Dalton Person, who voted to drop the mandate, said he was not motivated to do so because of the lawsuit but rather because of the number of parents and teachers who had talked with him in favor of ending the mandate.
“I don’t think this type of decision should rest with a volunteer school board. I don’t believe we should be the ones deciding,” Person said.