North Little Rock board mulling whether to continue mask mandate

North Little Rock board mulling whether to continue mask mandate

North Little Rock School Board members are expected to decide Dec. 16 whether the district’s mask mandate will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

While cases and quarantines from covid-19 were low in the district in October, cases began increasing in November.

“Of course, we know a lot of this is Thanksgiving, the holidays,” Tonya Green, a registered nurse who serves as the school district’s point of contact on covid-19, told board members Thursday. “We’re all gathering with families.”

In August, North Little Rock’s School Board unanimously approved a mask mandate requiring teachers, students, staff and visitors to wear a mask while at school.

The mandate has exceptions, including not having to wear a mask while eating, drinking, having a documented medical condition or special behavioral needs. The mandate also doesn’t apply during certain school activities and sports.

But while many Arkansas school districts moved to mandate masks before the school year, some have reversed course. The Pulaski County Special School District, which had approved a mask mandate, voted to end it in November after opposition from parents and the threat of possible legal action.

Unlike the Pulaski County Special School District mask mandate, which lasts only 60 days and needs additional votes from the board to renew it, North Little Rock’s masking rules come with no expiration date.

“When we put our mask mandate together, we didn’t put a time frame on it,” said Gregory Pilewski, superintendent of the North Little Rock School District. “Other districts did. We said we were going to monitor our data and come back.”

Pilewski said the School Board could ask to review the mask mandate and vote to continue or end it whenever it wanted. School Board member J.T. Zakrzewski, a supporter of the mask mandate, pushed for the board to vote on a mask mandate to preempt any legal action.

Zakrzewski cited the Pulaski County Special School District’s decision to end its mask mandate after some threatened legal action.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to stop doing what we’re doing, but I’d like to avoid the situation where we’re forced to have a vote. That’s my personal opinion,” Zakrzewski said Thursday.

While members of the North Little Rock School Board said they supported masking, the mandate remains controversial among staff and parents.

According to a survey of 1,752 parents, 53% supported masking with 43% opposed. Among the 672 staff members surveyed, 60% supported the mask rules with 40% opposed, according to Green.

Green also told School Board members that 55% of school district staff members have been vaccinated.

The board also received a report on an increase in days off taken by school staff. Staff members are projected to take a combined 14,379 sick days during the 2021-2022 school year, approximately 1,100 more than during the previous school year.

Staff members taking personal, vacation school and developmental days is also up, according to numbers from the school district.

Staff absences have put a financial strain on the school district, which has paid around $1.5 million for substitute teachers a year, School Board vice president Dorothy Williams said.

“Teachers want raises but won’t come to work,” Williams said.

The cause is due in part to stress and other mental health issues that have become more prevalent nationwide because of the covid-19 pandemic, said Jacob Smith, executive director of human resources for the North Little Rock School District.

“There’s a lot of people that are very tired, and there are a lot of people that are struggling,” Smith said.

Smith said the covid-19 pay for staff members, which is based on days worked at school, will improve attendance for staff members.

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