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Pulaski County Special School Board keeps face masks optional for students and staff

County district hears from parents, pediatricians, decides face coverings optional by Cynthia Howell | December 8, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

The School Board for the Pulaski County Special School District voted 4-2 Tuesday against reinstating a mask-wearing mandate for elementary school children ages 5-11.

The vote -- the board's fourth on the mask issue since August -- came in response to a group of parents, including pediatricians -- who had petitioned the board for a special meeting to consider reversing a Nov. 9 vote that made masks optional for all students and employees.

Until that November vote, all students and employees were required to wear masks in school buildings as a defense against the spread of covid-19.

"We feel this was a hasty and impulsive decision without a fair discussion from both sides of the issue," Anne McPherson, the parent group leader, said of the November vote in the petition that was signed by 159 district residents. "We would like to discuss the pros and cons of reinstating masks as it relates to health, safety and overall well-being of students and staff," she wrote.

In their presentation Tuesday, the parents said students -- particularly elementary school pupils -- need more time to become fully vaccinated.

Children ages 5-11 became eligible for covid-19 vaccinations in early November while adults have been eligible for almost a year, and those who are ages 12-18 became eligible last spring.

Dr. Jessica Snowden, division chief for the pediatric infectious disease division at Arkansas Children's Hospital and the mother of a 10-year-old, told the board that there are 1,500 kids in Arkansas with active covid-19 infections. About 11% of kids in the state are vaccinated, she said, and first available appointments for getting shots at some clinics are as far off as mid-January.

"Most kids will do just fine, but not all kids," Snowden said about getting covid. "Thirty-plus percent of kids after they have had covid-19 -- regardless of how sick they were in the first place -- will go on to have long-term symptoms that we don't even completely understand yet in terms of their ability to engage in school, their normal ability to play sports, their ability to sleep.

"We are seeing a lot of weird sleep disruptions after this," she said, adding that there also appear to be connections between covid-19 and diabetes.

Dr. Rebecca Cantu and Dr. Ashley Antipolo joined Snowden in saying that the wearing of masks has been shown to be an effective defense against covid-19.

"We have made progress, but there are many people at risk, both your students and their family members," Cantu said. "Wearing masks protects others and, until there has been reasonable time for everyone else to protect themselves, it is our responsibility as community members, educators and leaders to help protect them, too."

Antipolo told the board that its decision to lift the mask requirement last month -- within days of young children becoming eligible for shots -- was a premature end to "the most basic protective measure that could be offered in school to our youngest students. This includes my own children."

Antipolo also told the board that the pandemic is creating a crisis in the emotional and psychological health of children and teens but that the crisis is not being made worse by masks.

"The reality is that patients are struggling regardless of their school's masking policies," she said, adding that the causes include crises in the family, social isolation, and lack of access to education and resources provided by the schools.

School Board member Tina Ward made a motion to reinstate a mask mandate. School Board member Lindsey Gustafson asked that the motion be limited to requiring elementary school pupils to wear masks until all have an opportunity to be vaccinated.

Board member Stephen Delaney -- who has consistently voted in favor of mask mandates -- said that while he would have preferred last month to keep the mandate in place until the second semester of the school year, he was now concerned about "whipsawing between one position and another," and couldn't vote now "to go back."

"I just think we have to make our way," he said. "I'm sorry but my position will be to make our way forward with the certainty that we are going to be a mask-optional district. Please get your vaccinations if that is what you are inclined to do."

Ward and Gustafson voted for the motion. Delaney and board members Shelby Thomas, Laurel Tait and Heather Smith voted against it.

Tait and Smith are newly elected members of the board and did not vote on the mask issue at previous meetings, including the Nov. 9 meeting when the board voted 4-3 to make mask-wearing optional for students and employees.

That came after a different group of district parents and others exercised the state law that enables 50 or more citizens to petition for a school board meeting.

Attorney Greg Payne of Fayetteville told the board at the November meeting that school boards don't have the legal authority to require masks to be worn on school campuses and that such mandates violate the constitutional rights of district parents who could become plaintiffs in a potential lawsuit against the district.

Payne has filed lawsuits against different districts such as Bentonville, Cabot and El Dorado over mask mandates with varying degrees of success.

In Pulaski County, in a case in which Payne is not involved, Circuit Judge Tim Fox on Aug. 6 temporarily stopped the state from enforcing Act 1002 of 2021. That state law barred school districts and other government agencies from requiring people to wear masks.

A full hearing in the case assigned to Fox was held late last month. No decision in the case is expected until after a Dec. 10 deadline set by Fox for attorneys to submit final written arguments.

Print Headline: School board rejects mask mandate

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