A featherweight compromise that would free up local school districts to require masks in classrooms if they want, but only under specific circumstances, and only for short periods, got the expected mixed reviews before a House committee Wednesday, and ultimately stalled out.
Rep. Julie Mayberry (R-Hensley) said she was making her pitch to allow school districts to institute short-term mask mandates when needed because she wants to avoid plummeting test scores, poor mental health and social isolation that happen when schools shut down during COVID-19 outbreaks.
“We don’t have to take a vote today,” she said at the beginning of the hearing. “I’d love to take a vote today and get it passed, but I understand the reality of it.”
The reality appears to be that the bill doesn’t go far enough for medical experts hoping for a real shot at quelling out-of-control spread in schools, and it goes too far for anti-maskers ready to fight against what they perceive as attacks on their liberty.
The threshold of community COVID-19 spread that would have to be met before local school districts would be allowed to require masks in schools is far too high, meaning spread would already be out of control before schools could require masks, said Dr. Joe Thompson, president of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. The delta variant predominant in Arkansas right now is more than 2.5 times as infectious as the previous strain, and it attacks younger people, he said. With the ban on mask mandates in public schools in place, the state is handcuffed and defenseless.
“I probably like these masks less than anybody in the state of Arkansas,” Thompson said, but masking in schools is a must if we want to contain the third surge Arkansas is currently suffering through. And districts must be able to require masks of students of all ages, not just up to age 11, as Mayberry’s bill specifies.
For example, the Marion School District, which started its 2021-2022 school year last week and already has 730 students and staff out on quarantine and 43 with active COVID infections, doesn’t even get near to that threshold of 50 cases per 10,000 people living within the school district boundaries over the last 14 days. In fact, Marion’s numbers currently put them in the green zone, and they would have to level up through an orange designation and to red before they would be allowed to consider requiring masks.
Marion School District Superintendent Glen Fenter said he believes there’s nothing special about his district aside from its early school start date, and that other schools will have to send hundreds of students and staff home to quarantine if schools can’t require masks.
“My concern, obviously, is that we can’t teach our kids if they are quarantined,” Fenter said.
Staff members are vaccinated and masked for the most part, Fenter said. But students have been lackadaisical, sometimes wearing masks and sometimes not. The result is hundreds of unmasked students being exposed, and therefore having to be sent home.
“If our students had been under the same mask mandate we administered last year, instead of having 730 people quarantining, we would have 42,” he said.
“We simply need the ability to protect our students as best we can,” Fenter said. “We’re certainly prepared to accept the responsibility of what we think would be best actions at the local level.”
Mike Hernandez, president of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said he found support among his membership for Mayberry’s bill.
Of the 282 school districts in Arkansas, 100 are currently at or above the threshold of 50 cases per 10,000 residents in the district that’s required by the proposed bill before school boards could consider requiring masks.
Hutchinson has since said he wishes the ban on mask mandates didn’t go into law, but he also severely limited what lawmakers can do about it. His call to bring them in for a special session limits the legislature to considering mask requirements only for students 11 and younger, who are too young to be eligible for the vaccine. If the legislature wants to consider mask requirements for students older than that, it will take a 2/3 vote of the membership, a heavy lift in a supermajority Republican body swimming with anti-vaxers and ivermectin true believers.
A number of people showed up Wednesday to take up that banner for employing cattle dewormer instead of masks, vaccines and social distancing.
“Y’all are treading on me,” said Dallas Green, who introduced herself as both a nurse and a parent. Green said she must do her research in the same place Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) does, because she believes masks are an unnecessary infringement and that ivermectin, most commonly used as a dewormer for livestock, can cure COVID. (No reputable medical studies show this to be true.) Kathleen Rae, who introduced herself as a biomedical engineer but whose Linkedin profile indicates she works as a fitness instructor, offered more debunked misinformation. Rightwing activist Jan Morgan shared the story of a mother distraught because her daughter was suffering from a case of maskne, and said parents will pull their kids out and homeschool them if masks are required for students. Morgan then threatened to tattle on any Republican who voted for the bill before Committee Chair Jack Ladyman (R-Jonesboro) cut her mic.
Lawmakers offered up a few other ideas, including shutting down all sports and other extracurricular activities or delaying the start of school.
After three hours of sometimes lively testimony, most members on the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee seemed to remain opposed or only lukewarm. So Mayberry invited fellow lawmakers to share their suggestions as she reworks her proposal into something she hopes will muster more enthusiasm. It was unclear when the committee would meet next.
Wednesday was the first day of a special session called by Governor Hutchinson last week to reconsider the state’s ban on mask mandates since cases are surging and school is set to begin for most public school students in the next week or two. Hutchinson later added federal unemployment benefits to the agenda, asking the legislature to vote to deny unemployed Arkansans some of the extended unemployment money attached to the COVID-19 emergency. The goal, ostensibly, is to force layabouts back to work. The result, however, is more suffering for Arkansas families and a missed opportunity to fold millions of dollars into local economies. Bills denying the federal relief sailed through both House and Senate committees Wednesday, likely bound for an easy passage Thursday.