Not all local leaders eager to make decision on school mask mandates

Not all local leaders eager to make decision on school mask mandates

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Whether or not Arkansas students and teachers must mask up when they go back to school during this COVID surge is a huge decision. So big, in fact, that it appears many local school leaders aren’t eager to be the ones to make it.

Both the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA) and the Arkansas School Board Association are taking a wait-and-see approach in the lead-up to Wednesday’s special session, not lobbying for local control to make health-related decisions during the pandemic, but not lobbying against it, either.

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State lawmakers will convene at 10 a.m. Wednesday to consider a change to Act 1002 of 2021, which bans mask mandates for publicly funded state entities, including public schools.

Spokespeople for both the AAEA and the Arkansas School Board Association said their organizations have not lobbied lawmakers about changes to the mask mandate ban one way or the other. And both said they hope that if lawmakers relax the ban, they will also provide guidelines for local boards to go by when deciding if masks should be required.

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“We would hope that any local control that is given to the local boards during this health emergency would have some parameters to help local districts make decisions,” AAEA communication specialist Alyce Maddox said.

Governor Hutchinson decided last week to ask lawmakers to reconsider this ban only for schools, as case counts, vaccines for children under 12 remained stalled in the testing phase and new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend masking for everyone in all public spaces where spread is high (all of Arkansas currently fits this category).

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But those updated CDC guidelines apparently aren’t the ones many Arkansas educators are looking for. And recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that all children over the age of 2 should mask up at school this year also failed to become a rallying point as educators and lawmakers consider the 2021-2022 school year.

“We have some who think we should have mandates and some who think we should not. We’re pretty split,” said Dan Jordan, director of governmental relations for the Arkansas School Board Association, which has about 1,400 members.

Should lawmakers send decision-making powers back to school boards, Jordan said the hope among many of his membership is that they also provide clear, quantifiable guidelines and some state-level expertise on when masks should be required.

“It would be OK for districts to make their own decisions, but if that were the case, districts should have some professional folks to go with,” he said. Jordan envisioned a single, trusted, state-level source who could monitor the COVID-19 situation in Arkansas and let districts know what best practices they should be following. 

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It’s possible the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators will dive in Wednesday, once members can see specifically what changes are on the table, Maddox said. “Our members are awaiting the special session to understand what possible solutions may be presented to keep students safe.”

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