New covid-19 guidelines call for Arkansas schools to maintain as many virus precautions as possible -- including mask use in classrooms where children are under age 12 or where vaccination status of students cannot be confirmed.
The school guidelines from the state Departments of Education and Health and the governor's office were released Tuesday, a day in which:
• Gov. Asa Hutchinson met with Dumas community members to encourage vaccinations, and then with legislative leaders about Act 1002 of 2021 that goes into effect today and bans school districts and other government agencies from requiring masks for entry, education or services.
• More than 500 Arkansas physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers in an open letter called on Hutchinson and the state Legislature to reconvene to re-evaluate Act 1002, saying that masks are proven to reduce the spread of disease and that local school districts should have the option to decide on mask requirements for their campuses.
• The federal Centers for Disease Control revised its earlier guidelines to recommend indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, no matter their vaccination status.
The nine-page set of state guidelines for the state's 262 traditional school districts and charter school systems that serve more than 470,000 students recommends "implementing layered prevention strategies to protect people who are not fully vaccinated."
Those strategies include appropriate masking, physical distancing, screening and testing for illness, adequate room ventilation, handwashing, respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection, and staying home when sick.
The guidelines -- which acknowledge that masks cannot be mandated for students or employees under state law -- conclude that the delta variant of the covid-19 virus is now the predominant strain in the state and is two to three times more infectious and causes more severe illness than the earlier strain.
"While adolescents over 12 years of age and adults can be protected from the Delta variant by the covid-19 vaccines, children under 12 remain at high risk. Children represent an increasing proportion of new covid-19 cases, including hospitalizations and severe disease," the updated guidelines state.
"In light of the spread of this more transmissible variant (and potential future strains), ADH and ADE urge schools to maintain as many mitigation measures as possible, or risk increased spread within the school setting."
Hutchinson laid out the state's newly revised school guidelines at the meeting in Dumas in response to questions from Sara Williams, a nurse for the McGehee School District and one of several Desha County area school employees who expressed unease about the state's ban on mask requirements.
Hutchinson asked McGehee if she felt reassured.
"I do [feel reassured], but I would feel a lot more comfortable if we were able to mandate mask-wearing," Williams said.
The McGehee School District required masks through the end of the 2020-21 academic year, and Williams said the district would likely implement another mask requirement if it were allowed.
Dumas School District Superintendent Kelvin Gragg opposed the state ban on requiring vaccinations and masking.
"It is absolutely ludicrous for the numbers to go up and the General Assembly passed a law that prohibits school districts from [having] restrictions in place to govern the students of that particular school district," Gragg said. "I don't mean to be negative, but ... in all honesty, the people in Little Rock don't know what's going on or what's best for our schools in Dumas."
The crowd at the Dumas Convention Center applauded.
MEETING WITH LEADERS
Later Tuesday, Hutchinson discussed Act 1002 with House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana.
Last week, twelve Democratic lawmakers called on Hutchinson, legislative leadership, and other lawmakers to support an immediate call for a legislative session "to lift the ban on mask mandates." Shepherd and Hickey said Monday they were having conversations with lawmakers to gauge their interest in addressing the matter.
"In the coming days, I will be evaluating options for legislative changes to Act 1002 that will give our schools more local control on meeting the health needs of the students as we enter a new school year in the face of the Delta variant," Hutchinson, a Republican, said in a statement.
The governor said he would not make a decision on a special session until the legislative leaders have an opportunity to discuss options further with the other members of the General Assembly, something Shepherd said he was doing.
Shepherd told reporters Tuesday evening that though some people are calling on lawmakers to repeal the law altogether, much of the conversation has focused on whether there was a desire for changes that would allow school boards to have some control.
"At this point the focus is primarily looking at what, if any, changes would be entertained with regard to local schools," Shepherd said. "Anytime a parent sends children to school, even in a normal school year, there's always the concern of what a new school year brings. We take this very seriously and we're trying to work through this to determine what if anything needs to be done."
Hickey did not return calls seeking comment by deadline Tuesday evening.
Mark Rushing, a University of Arkansas, Fayetteville spokesman, in a statement Tuesday about talks between Hutchinson and lawmakers described the surge in covid-19 since the passage of the anti-mask law.
"We are encouraged that the Governor is discussing Act 1002 with legislators, given the rise of the Delta variant and current trends in infections and hospitalizations, conditions that did not exist in the spring when the legislation was passed," Rushing said. "In the meantime, we are continuing to use every opportunity to stress the importance of vaccinations among the university community."
In May, the university cited CDC guidance in dropping certain campus requirements that had been in place for the 2020-21 academic year.
Arkansas medical personnel in their open letter to lawmakers argued for changes to Act 1002 as a way to mitigate the risk of the virus. "Universal masking is paramount to ensuring that return to school is as safe as possible," the letter said.
Dr. Heather Young, a pediatric infectious disease doctor who drafted the letter, said the group mainly wants to see the provision in the law that does not allow school districts to enact mask mandates lifted.
"Our big ask is that local school districts be allowed to decide for themselves what masking requirements there should be instead of being a blanket ban on requiring masks," she said in a phone interview.
More than 25 parents, children and teachers gathered outside the Governor's Mansion Tuesday to demand the repeal of Act 1002. The event was organized by Grassroots Arkansas, an organization that describes itself as a coalition of activists. Multiple people chanted outside the mansion and multiple children rang the doorbell asking to speak to the governor.
"[Hutchinson] said today he might call for a special session," Anika Whitfield, co-chair of Grassroots Arkansas told the crowd. " We don't have time for might. We need a special session. Repeal 1002."
"It's tyranny and an overstep of the government to take away the power to make local decisions," she said. "If it's OK for private schools and private business to have mask mandates then public schools have the same rights."
Not every one in Arkansas supports mask mandates. Jessica Padgett, a public school teacher and mother of two in Faulkner County, said Tuesday that the decision to wear a face covering "should be left up to the individual parent and family, not the district as a whole." She said school boards can be political and don't necessarily represent the viewpoint of everyone in the district.
She said she had read studies showing that it is "psychologically damaging to force any child to wear a mask for hours on end," and that masks weren't effective. Masks make it more difficult to learn and are socially damaging, because they don't allow the child to see others' facial expressions, she added. She said her preteen daughter experienced headaches as a result of wearing a mask all day the last school year but didn't want to be singled out for an exemption.
Padgett added that a child becoming infected and becoming mildly sick is an insignificant instance in their life.
"Being forced to wear a mask for an entire school year, that's not inconsequential," she said. "They need to know that this is damaging to kids."
The state's newly revised covid-19 guidelines for schools go into detail about more than just face masks.
They include provisions requiring students and staff to isolate when ill with covid and to quarantine if unvaccinated and exposed to the virus, or if vaccinated but experiencing symptoms. Fully-vaccinated students or staff do not have to quarantine unless they have or develop symptoms, the guidelines state.
The guidelines also outline strategies for when it becomes necessary for a class, school or district to pivot to remote learning.
"Based on increasing numbers of positive cases, schools should expect interruptions to the school year and plan for contingencies," the guidelines state. "[Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and Arkansas Department of Health] will work closely with districts to monitor local situations and to assist if prolonged school closures or prolonged remote learning becomes necessary."
In cases where a classroom or a grade level must shift for a short time to remote learning, the school system should ensure the necessary tools for blended learning are in place so that teaching and learning can continue for students and faculty, the guidelines said.
"In the event that an entire school or district must modify on-site instruction and pivot to remote learning, the school or district will follow the district's approved Alternate Method of Instruction or AMI plan," the guidelines continue.
Those alternate instruction plans enable a district to count up to 10 days in which school buildings can't be open -- because of illness, inclement weather or a utility failure -- as student-contact school days. Those days won't have to be made up later. The alternate instruction plans should include "meaningful and engaging learning activities that can be completed remotely" by all students, according to the guidelines.
Full-time remote instruction is also addressed in the guidelines. Almost 100,000 Arkansas public school students last school year opted for full or part-time remote instruction away from the traditional classrooms to avoid the virus.
For the coming year, the Arkansas Board of Education invited districts, including open-enrollment charter schools, to submit proposals by last May 1 for offering remote learning options to their students. Plans have been approved for 128 of the state's 262 school systems.
In light of the summer surge of covid cases, the state has in the past week announced that it was giving districts another opportunity to establish digital learning plans for the offering of remote instruction. The districts have until 9 a.m. Aug. 2 to notify the state that they intend to create plans for remote, online instruction. The state Board of Education will review those notices at its Aug. 12 meeting, before the start of classes Aug. 16. Full applications from the districts are due to the state by Sept. 1.
THE FEDERAL LEVEL
The Centers for Disease Control on Tuesday revised its earlier guidelines to recommend indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, no matter their vaccination status.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona welcomed that revision.
"Students are provided the best opportunity to learn and thrive when learning in person. We know the best way to safely do this is to get as many people age 12 and older vaccinated," Cardona responded.
"Given the recent trends in the covid-19 spread due to premature relaxation of prevention strategies by unvaccinated individuals and lagging vaccination rates in some parts of our country, we support the recommendation for masking in K-12 schools. We must do everything to ensure that our students do not have to compromise any more of their educational experiences due to increases in community spread," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Stephen Simpson and Jaime Adame of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.