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States

Arkansas Judge Pauses Ban on School Mask Mandates After Lawmakers Fail to Act

By Evie Blad — August 06, 2021 3 min read
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson takes off his face mask as he arrives for a daily coronavirus briefing at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. on April 27, 2020. Hutchinson signed a bill in April banning statewide and local mask mandates in Arkansas, but he is now considering rolling back that law amid concerns of the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19.
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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.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • As of Jan. 24, five states have bans in effect that prevent school districts from setting universal mask mandates, according to an Education Week analysis. Five additional states have such bans, but they have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.

  • MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT


    1. Florida

    On Sept. 22, Florida's surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians "sole discretion" over masking in schools. On Nov. 5, a judge sided with the state health department in a legal challenge to rule. On Nov. 18 Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that allows parents to sue school districts that require masks.

    2. Oklahoma

    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 school mask mandates if they choose.

    3. Texas

    On Dec. 1, an appeals court halted a federal judge’s order that had stopped Texas from enforcing its ban on mask mandates in schools, allowing the prohibition to remain in effect.

    4. Utah

    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.

    5. Virginia

    An executive order from Gov. Youngkin that took effect on Jan. 24, 2022 allows parents to opt their child out of any mask mandate at their school. The order also rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been put in place since August. The order has caused confusion and prompted lawsuits.

    MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED


    1. Arizona

    On Sept. 27, a judge in Arizona blocked the state laws banning mask mandates that were set to take effect on Sept. 29. On Nov. 2, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

    2. Arkansas

    An Arkansas judge ruled on Dec. 29, that a law signed by the governor in April that prohibited local officials, including school boards, from setting mask mandates was unconstitutional. School districts have been able to set their own mask requirements since August when the judge put the law on hold.

    3. Iowa

    On Sept. 13, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. The order was later extended. The case is now awaiting a ruling from a federal appeals court.

    4. South Carolina

    On Sept. 28, a federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing the rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students.

    5. Tennessee

    MASKS REQUIRED


    1. California
    2. Connecticut
    3. Delaware
    4. District of Columbia
    5. Hawaii
    6. Illinois
    7. Louisiana

    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, and most recently extended on Jan. 19, students are required to wear masks in schools, but districts can opt out of the mandate if they adopt an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state's department of health protocols.

    8. Maryland

    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but newly allowed school districts to opt out if at least 80% of the county or 80% of their students and staff have been fully vaccinated.

    9. Massachusetts

    On Jan. 10, Massachusetts extended the state's mask requirement through Feb. 28. On Sept. 27, Massachusetts said schools can apply for a waiver from the face covering rules if 80% of their students and staff have been vaccinated. If a school reaches the 80% threshold, unvaccinated students and employees are still required to wear masks.

    10. Nevada
    11. New Jersey

    On Dec. 7, a judge ruled New Jersey's school mask mandate is "rational" and does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

    12. New Mexico
    13. New York
    14. Oregon
    15. Rhode Island
    16. Washington
  • Note: In Missouri, the state attorney general has sued some school districts that require masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 are illegal. (The ruling is being interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he was also cracking down on schools with mask mandates.
    Updated 01/24/2022 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here

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