With positive confirmed cases of COVID-19 returning to pre-winter break numbers, the Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education repealed a mandatory mask requirement reinstated Jan. 10 during a called board meeting Monday (Feb. 7).
When the school board voted to reinstate the mask mandate, the district was in the purple zone with 137 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI). The district later moved into the pink zone (the highest level of cases). On Jan. 31, ACHI still had Fort Smith in the pink zone with 229 per 10,000 residents, down from 285 the week of Jan. 24. A new report is not yet available with new numbers.
However, FSPS Superintendent Dr. Terry Morawski told the board that as of Monday, there were 43 positive cases in the district, 27 students and 16 staff. The Arkansas Department of Health report for educational institutions dated Feb. 7, reported 181 active cases for Fort Smith Public Schools.
On Jan. 10, when the mask mandate was reinstated, there were 198 positive COVID cases in Fort Smith schools, 49 of which were staff and 149 of which were students, Morawski said at the time. The highest number of active cases in the district was on Jan. 14 with 641 cases, of which 520 were students and 121 were staff. By comparison, the district’s numbers were 40 total, with nine staff and 31 students, on Dec. 22.
“Those numbers show a steep and steady decline that has happened in the past few weeks,” Morawski said.
Morawski recommended the board allow the mask mandate to expire as it was only put in place for 30 days on Jan. 10 and would expire at the end of the day Wednesday (Feb. 9). The board, however, voted unanimously to repeal the requirement effective immediately.
Along with active COVID cases declining in the schools, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced in a press conference Feb. 1 that there would no longer be a contact tracing requirement for Arkansas schools no matter the school’s mask mandate policy. When the school district reinstated the mask mandate, there was no contact tracing requirement for districts with a mask requirement. The district has not had contact tracing since the mask mandate was reinstated, Morawski said.
“Previous requirements related to contact tracing and quarantining of those students and staff led to incredible disruption in our schools,” Morawski said. “With this new flexibility, we are able to eliminate contact tracing in our schools whether or not we have a mask requirement.”