Pediatric infectious disease Dr. Heather Young tried to debunk a flood of misinformation at the Capitol Thursday. Brian Chilson

That brief and shining hope that local school districts might be allowed to protect students from COVID-19 with mask mandates got smashed to smithereens Thursday afternoon, when members of the Arkansas Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee rejected two bills.

By voice vote, committee members nixed the Democrats’ bill presented by Reps. Tippi McCullough of Little Rock and Denise Garner of Fayetteville that would let local districts worried about COVID mandate masks for children under 12.

Advertisement

House members also rejected Republican Rep. Julie Mayberry’s good faith effort at compromise, not even allowing her to amend her bill to incorporate their suggestions from Wednesday. Based on what she heard from legislators and doctors, Mayberry changed the amount of time masks could be mandated without a reassessment by school boards from 60 days to 21, and lowered the community spread rate at which boards would be allowed to even consider a mask mandate. Her work to craft a bill that relieved their concerns did not pay off. Committee members voted to not allow her to incorporate those changes, then voted the bill down entirely.

We’ve already seen the disaster of opening schools without masks in place. In Marion, where classes started last week, 839 students and staff are already in quarantine because they were exposed to someone with COVID-19 while unmasked.

Advertisement

Governor Hutchinson makes a statement about the regrettable ban on mask mandates.

The votes against allowing schools to require masks came after lawmakers listened to more than an hour of testimony, much of it citing debunked studies and misinformation. Even when medical experts took the mic to talk about the efficacy of masks in preventing COVID-19, many of the lawmakers on the committee seemed more swayed by science deniers.

Advertisement

And appeals about the economic benefits of mask wearing didn’t land, either. Unmasked students have to be quarantined if they’re exposed, and that causes school shutdowns, missed workdays for parents and missed paychecks. When students are in school, parents can work and earn, Jennifer Standerfer, an attorney and mother from Bentonville, told lawmakers.

“You need me to drive the economy, and I need you to help me do that,” she said.

A few other legislative attempts at school mask mandates got filed today, including one by Rep. David Tollett (R-Lexa) that’s not a mandate at all, but allows schools to suggest that students wear masks. Of course, that’s already allowed. Independent Sen. Jim Hendren filed a version of a school masks bill that looks a lot like one that got voted down on the House side today. Sen. Greg Leding and Rep. Nicole Clowney both filed bills that would allow state-run childcare facilities to require masks when COVID-19 threats are high.

One bill related to mandating masks in schools that remained standing Thursday is less of a mask bill than a school voucher bill in disguise. The proposal by Sen. Alan Clark would let public schools implement mask mandates, but parents who didn’t like it could pull their students and take their funding with them. Instead of public funding going to the public school serving the student, that public funding would instead go to homeschooling parents or toward private school tuition.

Advertisement

It’s not clear if these bills will ever make it anywhere, though, since many lawmakers expect the special session to end tomorrow.

A lawsuit over the ban on mask mandates, filed by concerned parents who want schools to have tools to protect children’s health, is set to go before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox Friday. The Little Rock and Marion school districts filed a similar suit this week.