Schools decide if masks go or stay
Officials get calls from both sides
Decisions on school mask requirements made before Thursday’s deadline brought out plenty of public opinion in districts around the state as covid-19 cases inch upward but remain far below peak totals.
School board members in some systems reported large numbers of contacts from the public on both sides of the mask issue.
“We received a lot of phone calls and emails regarding this topic,” Pulaski County Special School District board member Alicia Gillen and her board colleagues said this week just before a unanimous vote to keep the mandate.
Arkansas school boards had until Thursday to decide on requiring students and staffers to wear masks through the end of the school year.
Total numbers of boards favoring or not favoring mask-wearing mandates were not available Thursday. Arkansas has 262 traditional and charter school systems.
The deadline came on a day in which the Arkansas Department of Health reported active infections among public school students and staffs increasing to 217, up from the 202 active cases listed in a report
Monday. The department issues reports on covid-19 in schools twice weekly, usually Mondays and Thursdays.
Case counts in schools have risen this month but not climbed above the March 18 total of 302 active cases tallied just before March 22-26, spring break week for many students.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced March 30 that he was lifting what had been the statewide mask mandate for virtually all public places and shifting that mandate to guidance that masks be worn.
Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key immediately directed school boards to take votes on whether to continue, modify or discontinue mask mandates in the schools and to post those decisions on district websites.
Chris Cloud, president of the Russellville School District, said it played in his decision to oppose the continuation of the mask requirement in that district.
“The governor lifted the mask mandate, therefore I personally could not force a mandate on our students and staff that the governor had lifted,” Cloud said, speaking only for himself and not the other board members.
“That’s why I was personally opposed to a policy requiring masks,” he said. “It’s optional now in our district. We had a open forum for discussion at our board meeting. Two patrons addressed the board — one in person and one by email. Both were opposed to enforcing a mask mandate.”
The divided feelings over masks were evident in the Conway School District. The Conway board’s vote in March to retain the mask requirement prompted almost 50 parents to attend the board’s meeting this week to object, the Log Cabin Democrat reported this week. Students, however, attended in support of the requirement.
Conway School Board President Trip Leach acknowledged to the audience that everyone is tired of the pandemic and the masks, but they share the goal of keeping students in school for the next six weeks, the newspaper reported.
“I’m begging you,” Leach asked the crowd. “Please don’t divide our staff [or] put a wedge between this board. This is not going to help us [finish the year strong],” according to the report.
A check of school districts — which were to post their mask decisions on their websites — showed that some school systems were continuing to require masks as a defense against the spread of the covid-19 virus.
But other districts posted that the mask requirement, which had been in place since the start of the school year, is now optional for staff and students.
Bentonville, Little Rock, Pulaski County Special, Rogers, Fort Smith, West Memphis and Conway are among the districts opting to stick with mandatory mask requirements for students and employees. A few others include Marion, Magnolia, Vilonia, Hope and Stuttgart.
But others — Russellville, Benton, Beebe, Van Buren, Mountain View, Atkins, Bigelow and De Queen — are among the systems that are relaxing the mandate by making it optional.
Others loosened the requirement for certain settings, like the Springdale School District. Masking is required indoors and on the school bus whenever 6 feet of distancing isn’t possible, but masks are not required outdoors, according to the district’s modified policy.
Teachers in the Springdale district are generally required to wear masks, but not if they are keeping 12 feet of distance while giving instruction.
Students and adults at Academics Plus Charter Schools Inc. campuses “are strongly encouraged to continue to wear masks but they are not required,” the Maumelle-based charter school system posted on its website after a board vote this month.
The charter system qualified the position to say that if the numbers of covid cases reach a certain threshold, 10 at a two campuses and 5 at a smaller one, the mask requirement will be reinstated.
Rob McGill, Academics Plus Chief Executive Officer, said his board’s decision wasn’t unanimous but the majority sentiment favored relaxing the requirement. That was partly because all the staff that wanted vaccinations got them at school-sponsored shot clinics, he said. It was also because of the rarity of covid-19 cases at the three campuses since mid-February.
“Of course, the methodology of getting back into the mandate if we do see an increase in covid numbers — I think that was a large part of the decision,” McGill said. “We’ll take the mask mandate away if we see the numbers increase.”
Arkansas health and education leaders have said that if a student or employee wearing a mask is a close contact with a person wearing a mask who is diagnosed with covid, the close contact will not have to go into quarantine.
McGill said the governor’s lifting of the statewide mask mandate was a contributing factor in the Academics Plus decision.
Similarly, the Van Buren School District said students and staff won’t be required to wear masks at school or other school-sanctioned events in light of the governor’s decision and input from the Van Buren families and staff.
The Van Buren position also states: “As face coverings have proven to be an effective tool against the spread of illness, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages everyone to wear masks and practice social distancing when possible. All other guidelines of the Arkansas Department of Health will remain in effect. Van Buren School District will also continue with its enhanced sanitizing procedures at all campuses.
“The safety of our students and staff remains our top priority. We appreciate all who provided feedback about this policy and are grateful for everyone’s continued cooperation.”
Active cases of covid-19 in the state’s public schools continued an upward trend that began shortly after spring break week, rising about 7% over a three-day period ending Thursday, according to state Department of Health data.
Case counts in public schools have increased 42% since April 1, yet remain far below mid-January when cases topped 3,400 in Arkansas public schools.
The Health Department report Thursday listed the Cabot School District in Central Arkansas as having the most active infections, with 15 active cases.
“It has not been necessary to implement any type of programming changes. Though we have had 15 positive cases among students and staff, the positivity rate is much lower than earlier in the semester,” Superintendent Tony Thurman said in an email Thursday.
Face coverings became optional April 2 at Cabot schools, the district’s website states. But the district’s announcement of the change stated that a masking requirement can be reinstated by the superintendent, in consultation with the district’s school board, if a school’s covid-19 positivity rate increases.
“We have not made any changes to our flexible face covering policy at any location,” Thurman said. “We will continue to closely monitor the number of positive cases reported and will certainly consider doing so if necessary.”
On April 1, the Cabot district had 5 active cases of covid-19, according to the Health Department. The state Department of Education lists the district as having about 10,500 students.
Two districts tied for having the second-most active infections. The Bentonville School District and the Pulaski County Special School District each were listed as having 13 active cases.
The Bentonville School District requires students and staff to wear face coverings at school, school functions and on the school bus, according to the district’s school safety plan posted online.
The district on March 16 set an expiration date of the end of the school year for this policy.
Gillen, the Pulaski County Special School District board member, noted how vaccines have not been approved yet for students younger than 16.
“A majority of our student body that are in our schools every day do not have the opportunity to be vaccinated at this time,” Gillen said. “Until that is available to all families and to all ages, I think it is very important that we continue with the mask mandate.
Gillen added that there are only about five or six weeks to the end of the school year and said she would hate to have a positive covid-19 test in a school result in quarantining seniors during graduation and other end-of-theyear events.
The Health Department report listed 11 school districts as having five or more active infections, down from Monday’s report which listed 13 districts as having that many active cases.
Active cases in the state’s colleges and universities decreased to 86 from 90 earlier this week.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville topped all colleges with 30 active cases, followed by two colleges — Harding University and the University of Central Arkansas — each listed as having nine cases.