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Northwest Arkansas delegation members see special session call as a tall order on changing anti-mask bill

by Doug Thompson | July 31, 2021 at 7:41 a.m.
The Arkansas State Capitol Building is shown in this file photo.

None of the Northwest Arkansas delegation members contacted Thursday and Friday have changed their views yet on the state law prohibiting school districts from mandating the wearing of face masks on campus.

Several said they will give due consideration to specific proposals for changes when they see them in an upcoming special legislative session, but none said they are ready now to change their minds.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced plans Thursday to call a special session to ask the Legislature to rescind or change a state law prohibiting public school districts from imposing mask requirements for kindergarten through 12th grade.

[Should the state repeal the mask mandate ban? Let us know. Take our poll: nwaonline.com/729maskmandate/]

Act 1002 of 2021 imposed the prohibition. The act passed the House 69-to-20 in the 100-member body with 11 not voting. The bill passed the Senate 19-to-9 with seven senators either not voting or unable to vote that day. Hutchinson signed the measure into law April 29.

The law passed before the Delta variant of covid-19 developed. The mutation of the disease is more contagious, particularly to children. Public schools are scheduled to open in mid-August. The variant caused the rise in cases that led to Hutchinson reinstating a state of emergency Thursday, granting him powers to deal with the steepest rise in covid cases in six months. The rise comes despite the availability of vaccines. Arkansas has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Even supporters of repealing the anti-mask measure outright see efforts to lift portions of the ban as a long shot with risks.

"We might get something through the Senate where the bill passed with only 19 votes" with 18 required, said Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, one of the most outspoken critics of the measure. "But, without an emergency clause, we'd have a change that didn't take effect until early November."

Bills passed into law normally take effect 91 days after the legislative session that passed them ends. An emergency clause allowing laws to go into immediate effect requires a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber.

"So we could make the situation worse," Leding said. "If we pass something without an emergency clause and say 'OK. You can do this, but not for months from now.' There are some who argue that would give school boards enough legal cover to impose a mandate before then -- but would it?"

Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, also voted against Act 1002. He sees the most likely prospect of changing the act as a limited repeal specifically targeting schools.

"Even this very limited measure will be difficult to pass in the current political climate, but it is probably doable in the House," he said. "Getting the two-thirds majority for the emergency clause will be a much heavier lift, but with the rapid and uncontrolled spread of the Delta variant, we are right to try our hardest to get relief to our schools as quickly as possible."

Public sentiment has not changed, several delegation members said.

"My emails are better than 9-1 against changing Act 1002," said Rep. Bruce Coleman, R-Mountainburg.

Rep. Josh Bryant, R-Rogers, said his support for Act 1002 hasn't changed and other means of controlling the outbreak are available.

"I continue to support Act 1002 in its current form. Parents and guardians of a child know what's best for their child's health and learning needs," he said.

Act 1002 does not prohibit students from wearing a mask if they feel doing so is their best protection, Bryant added.

"I have spoken to constituents including teachers, parents and a school board member and the vast majority expressed that handwashing and temperature checks would be more successful this school year than a mandate of nonsurgical masks in which no data supports it prevented the spread," he said.

Only an individually fitted KN95 mask or equivalent is proven in published studies to have any strong degree of protection against the virus, he said.

Vaccines are not yet approved for use for children younger than 12 years old, said Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, who voted against Act 1002. Her goal is to do "whatever it takes to keep Arkansas children safe from the devastating effects of the Delta variant" or others, she said.

"We know that vaccines are the best line of defense for the Delta variant, which is more devastating to children," Garner said. "For those students ineligible for a vaccine, we need to be certain the decision-makers in each community, those who are closest to the situation, have the ability and data they need to keep students safe and schools open."

There is the issue of local control to consider also, several delegation members said. The Fayetteville School Board voted 7-0 Thursday to pass a resolution opposing Act 1002, calling on state lawmakers to grant the local board the ability to once again require students and employees to wear masks at school.

"Having spent 15 years on the Gravette School Board, I know that local boards need to have flexibility when dealing with emergencies," said Sen. Jim Hendren, I-Sulphur Springs. Hendren voted against the bill. "I believe in personal responsibility and parents' freedom to raise their children as they see fit, but I also believe in public safety and the responsibility we have to keep schoolchildren, particularly those 12 and under who have no choice about vaccination, safe."

Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, also said local control was a major issue for her.

"I did not vote in support of banning mask mandates in schools because I believe those decisions should be made at the local level," she said. "What is needed in a small rural school may be far different than the needs in a large urban area."

Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, also favored letting local boards decide but expressed no optimism an exception would pass.

"I don't think the chances are good," she said. Bledsoe also voted against the measure.

The ultimate expression of local control is individual choice, said Rep. Kendon Underwood, R-Rogers, who voted for the bill.

"I plan to thoroughly review any bill once it is presented. However, if this is an issue about local control, I believe the best local control is the decision made by each individual for their own situation," he said.

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, voted for Act 1002.

"I will support the rights of parents to decide if their child should be masked or not," he said.

Both Sen. Mathew Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, and Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said they wanted to see specific proposals in the special session before making a final decision. Both voted in favor of Act 1002.

Rep. Delia Haak, R-Centerton, said the constituents she hears from want Act 1002 to stand. She cited one mother of a student with asthma whose condition was complicated by previous mask requirements. She also voted for the original act.

Print Headline: Little movement seen on anti-mask mandate bill

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