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County school district opts to keep mask mandate

by Cynthia Howell | April 14, 2021 at 3:33 a.m.

Wearing face coverings as a defense against the covid-19 virus will continue to be required of students and employees in the Pulaski County Special School District, the School Board voted Tuesday.

The board voted 7-0 to mandate the masks through the end of the school year -- despite some personal reluctance but in response to staff members and parents who overwhelmingly asked for the mandate to be extended.

"I'm extremely tired of the masks," board member Eli Keller said. "I'm not a proponent of the masks, and I personally don't have the belief that they are super efficient. However, I am understanding that the majority of people are more comfortable when people are wearing masks."

Keller said about nine out of 10 people who corresponded with him on the topic favored continuing the practice that began as a statewide mandate last summer.

"I will be voting to pass to maintain the masks because I'm elected to represent the district that I live in as they see fit, not as I see fit," he continued. "If we can keep one kid in school who doesn't miss graduation or doesn't miss a pep rally or a soccer game, I think we owe it to the kids to err on the side of caution and maintain what has obviously worked for us."

Board members acted on the very detailed 2¼-page mask policy in response to state leaders.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced March 30 that he was lifting what had been the statewide mask mandate for virtually all public places and shifting that mandate to guidance that masks be worn.

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key immediately directed school boards for Arkansas' 262 districts and charter school systems to take votes on whether to continue, modify or discontinue mask mandates in the schools and to post those decisions on district websites by Thursday. School boards statewide have since taken different positions on the masks, with some continuing the practice and others making it an option or personal choice.

Pulaski Special board member Shelby Thomas said he has received more comments on the mask mandate question than on any previous topic since his 2016 election to the board, and the majority said they want to finish the year with the masks.

"Our seniors were devastated last year because they were not able to have a prom or graduation," Thomas said about the school year that was shut down in March. "I would just hate to see if half of our student body would come in contact and have to miss a graduation or a prom again this year, and we could have prevented it by keeping the mandate in place."

Superintendent Charles McNulty urged the continuation of the masks as a way to enable employees and students -- many of whom have not gotten vaccines -- "to walk to the end of the school year with no significant outbreak."

Board member Stephen Delaney sought assurances that principals will not make their faculties wear shields or goggles in addition to the required masks.

Board member Brian Maune noted that the newly approved policy does not prohibit visitors to schools. Maune asked that schools loosen their restrictions on children congregating to play and on parent visits to the schools for year-end activities and celebrations.

Board member Tina Ward, on a different matter but related to the covid-19 pandemic, asked that the district find a way to provide a financial award to all staff members for the work done in the pandemic school year.

"Allow that joy to finish out the year for the children and the families," Maune said.

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