As the state sees soaring rates of the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant, Arkansas school districts will—at least for now—be able to set their own local mask requirements.
A Pulaski County judge granted a preliminary injunction Friday pausing a state law that prohibits local officials, including school boards, from setting mask mandates. That order, made in response to a lawsuit by two public school parents, will put the law’s enforcement on hold while the court considers whether the law violates the state constitution.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the law, Act 1002, in April, but recently announced that he regretted it. As vaccination rates waned and hospitals filled in his state, Hutchinson declared a new public health emergency and called the legislature into a special session to give school districts the freedom to set their own policies.
The judge’s Friday ruling came hours after the Arkansas legislature ended that session after three days without taking any action.
The state’s debate comes as schools around the country wrestle with how to respond to the Delta variant. Eight states prohibit schools from setting mask mandates or from requiring masks without allowing students to opt out, according to Burbio, a website that has tracked schools’ responses to the pandemic.
In hearings this week, Arkansas lawmakers heard from opponents of mask mandates who shared misinformation about the virus and mitigation practices. One state lawmaker told a pediatric infectious disease physician who testified in favor of local mask mandates to do more research on treatments that have long been debunked by epidemiologists.
Parents who supported mask mandates said they feared their districts would be forced into sudden closures or large-scale quarantines if they couldn’t contain the virus’s spread. Last year, the state required masks in schools for most of the academic year, later leaving the decision to local school boards until the new law passed, tying their hands. Parents said they feared the Delta variant, and possibly more contagious strains, would spread more quickly.
In addition to the parent plaintiffs, two school districts have sued over Act 1002. They include Little Rock, one of the state’s largest, and Marion, a 4,000-student eastern Arkansas district where more than 800 students and 10 staff members have had to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure a week after classes started earlier this month.
Even as they push for schools to reopen for in-person learning, federal officials have called for “layered mitigation strategies,” including mask wearing, to reduce the risk of transmission in buildings.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called last week for universal mask-wearing in schools. The agency, which previously said vaccinated students may not need to wear masks, cited emerging research about the Delta variant. Masks help prevent the wearer from contracting the virus and, worn universally, slow spread among populations, case studies have found.
In calling the special session, Hutchinson said he was especially concerned about children under 12, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. After its conclusion, he tweeted that he was “disappointed” by the lack of action.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued the preliminary injunction pausing the ban Friday after attorneys for parent plaintiffs argued, among other things, that Act 1002 violated the equal protection clause by allowing private schools to set mask requirements while restricting public schools from doing so.
As states like Arkansas, Florida, and Texas have sought to prohibit local school mask requirements, other states are pushing schools to adopt more stringent virus mitigation practices.
In Virginia, for example, Gov. Ralph Northam has said that school districts will be in violation of state law if they do not require masks in compliance with CDC guidance.
Nine states have banned school districts from setting universal mask mandates. Those bans are in effect in six states. In the remaining three states, mask mandate bans have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.
MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT
- South Carolina
MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
*On Sept. 10, a Florida judge reinstated the state’s ban on school mask mandates.
On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of the requirement if they choose.
Tennessee‘s governor has signed an executive order requiring schools to allow families to opt out of mask mandates.
In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.
An Arizona judge ruled the state law banning mask mandates will not go into effect until Sept. 29.
In Arkansas, a judge paused the state law that prohibits local officials from setting mask mandates, meaning school districts can—at least for now—set their own local mask requirements.
On Sept. 13, a federal district court ordered Iowa to immediately halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools.
Updated guidance released by the Texas Education Agency on Sept. 17 states that per the governor’s executive order, school systems “cannot require students or staff to wear a mask.”
Updated 9/21/2021 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here