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School boards left to set own rules

Each panel directed to vote on facial-covering policies by Cynthia Howell | March 31, 2021 at 7:19 a.m.
Secretary of Education Johnny Key answers a question during the weekly covid-19 briefing on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

School boards for Arkansas' 262 districts and charter school systems must decide whether students and employees on their campuses have to continue to abide by a mask mandate, Education Secretary Johnny Key said Tuesday.

Key issued the directive at a news conference in which Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the immediate lifting of the statewide mask mandate. That mandate had been in place since last summer as a way to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvoQ0Siyu2Q]

The required wearing of masks by students and employees has been a critical component of a "successful school year" in which 80% of students are now attending classes on-site, Key said. The state's education secretary attributed that success in large part to "a layered approach" to defending against the virus, including the wearing of masks, sanitizing of surfaces and physical distancing.

"With the end of the [state] mask mandate, we are allowing local districts to make the decisions on whether they want to continue to have a mask mandate at the local level," he said in directing school boards to take votes to either continue, modify or eliminate their mask-wearing policies.

Leaders in the Little Rock, Pulaski County Special, Texarkana and Beebe school districts were among those that said almost immediately Tuesday that mask-wearing will continue on their campuses and offices until school boards can meet to make final decisions.

Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore said in a video message that the mask requirement will continue until at least April 8, when the School Board will vote on his recommendation that the current rules stay in place.

The Little Rock district reported having six students and employees come down with covid-19 and 16 more people who were exposed to the virus in the period between 3 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Tuesday.

The Texarkana district issued a statement Tuesday saying that its mask mandate will continue at least until the local board has the opportunity to make changes.

"While it is not possible to eliminate all risks associated with covid-19, TASD [the Texarkana, Ark., School District] has successfully provided in-person learning options since August 2020," the statement said. "This success can be attributed to the multiple layers of mitigation strategies that have been implemented in our district, such as social distancing, reduced class sizes, mask wearing, disinfecting and cleaning, handwashing, and physical distancing to the extent practical."

In other districts such as Bentonville, Fort Smith, Jonesboro and Jacksonville/North Pulaski, school boards had already decided in recent days to retain the mask-wearing policies for schools in anticipation of the governor lifting the statewide mandate. El Dorado, Bryant and Clarendon school districts have indicated that mandates will continue through the end of the school year.

But the Alma School District said its mask-wearing requirements will be relaxed.

"Effective [today], masks will no longer be required to be worn by students, staff, or visitors when on Alma School District campuses," Superintendent David Woolly said in an email in which he added: "Although masks will no longer be required, we encourage everyone to consider wearing a mask whenever in close contact with other people."

"Students, staff, and visitors are welcome to continue to wear masks at school and school events," Woolly said.

Key urged the school boards to consider all aspects of school operations -- including what happens on school buses, in cafeterias and in hallways -- in deciding how to proceed with their rules on face coverings for the remainder of the school year.

He noted that a school district's position on masks will affect quarantine requirements for students and employees who come in close contact with a person who has covid. If both the infected person and the close contact wore masks properly, then the close contact will not have to isolate. If at least one of the two is not wearing a mask or if the school doesn't require masks, then the ill person and the close contact will have to adhere to Arkansas Department of Health requirements for quarantining, he said.

School board positions on mask-wearing must ultimately be included in each district's Ready For Learning Plan. Modifications to those plans for the safe operation of schools -- which were initially written for the start of this 2020-21 school year -- must be posted to each school system's website by April 15 after the collection of public comment on the changes.

The public comment, the modifications and the April 15 website posting date are required by the federal American Rescue Plan. That federal plan was approved by Congress and President Joe Biden earlier this year as part of a $1.9 trillion covid-relief effort. Arkansas education is to receive $1.253 billion of that money, which is the third round of covid relief funding to schools in a year's time.

On Tuesday, Key and his staff at the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, in a memo to school district leaders, said that in addition to decisions on mask-wearing, educators should also take into consideration changes in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on physical distancing, which has been 6 feet.

"The CDC also has updated requirements for physical distancing to allow for a minimum distance of three feet in a classroom setting," the memo notes. "In response to these changes, districts must coordinate with their Ready for Learning Committees to review current policies and make decisions regarding how they will implement operational changes, particularly in regard to the wearing of masks and physical distancing."

To assist schools when considering policy changes, the state agency has updated guidance to schools on best practices for the safety of students and employees in an in-person learning setting.

The guidance document is available at https://bit.ly/3wa3qVe.

Questioned on whether parents who disagree on relaxing the mask mandate in a school will have the option to move their children to a virtual instruction program, Key said Tuesday that situations vary in the state.

"A lot of districts have virtual options," Key said, adding that those would be available to families.

"I would just encourage parents to be part of these conversations," he said.

In response to questions about the wisdom of lifting the state mask mandate at a time when there are increases in covid-19 cases in other parts of the nation, Hutchinson said he would not speculate on what conditions would warrant reinstating the statewide mandate.

"It would be my hope and belief that with the vaccines getting out, that we are going to be able to keep the pressure on the virus and keep it from spreading," he said. "That's the goal. If our population is not getting vaccinated and we see an increase in the virus, we'll have to take a look at what measures we need to take. The future is in our hands about getting vaccinated," he said.

HIGHER EDUCATION

Representatives of the state's biggest universities all said earlier this month that they will keep their existing campus mask requirements in place through spring.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, for example, plans to follow the safety protocols outlined in the Spring 2021 COVID-19 Response Guide through at least the end of the spring semester. The guide includes appropriate social distancing and mask-wearing protocols as well as other safety guidelines.

Arkansas State University in Jonesboro states on its website that after consultation with faculty, "our plan is to continue through the end of the spring semester with our on-campus mask mandate (which predates the state's mandate) anywhere that physical distancing is not possible.

The University of Central Arkansas in Conway stated on its website: "One thing that will not change for us after spring break and through the remainder of the spring semester is the requirement that face coverings must be worn inside university facilities such as classrooms, residence halls, offices, student center, library, HPER, and cafeteria. While we likely will have the ability to have more people in spaces as social distancing requirements are relaxed, we will stay the course on face coverings as we ensure that we finish the spring strong and position our university for a return to normal operations in August."

And Arkansas Tech University in Russellville said: "Mandatory face coverings and social distancing protocols will remain in place on all Arkansas Tech campuses through the end of the spring 2021 semester. Those policies and continued progress through the phases of ATU's pandemic recovery framework will be reviewed during summer 2021."

SENATOR BRIEFED

Key announced the face-covering strategy on a day in which he and his staff met with U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., to recap the state's public school efforts during the covid-19 pandemic.

Key and his staff highlighted the fact that the state -- unlike many others -- has provided on-site instruction throughout the year. That's been done with some temporary shifts to remote instruction in the event of covid-19 outbreaks.

Some 80% of the state's more than 470,000 public school students are in classrooms. But Key and his staff also said that many of the 20% of students who are learning virtually at home are those with the greatest academic needs who most likely need to be learning on campus.

Key said that after talking to his colleagues in other states, "we're ahead." That's the case with funding, as well. The state's schools did not see cuts in funding this year because of the covid-related downturn in the economy. And covid-19 relief money -- more than $1 billion in federal funding -- is in the pipeline for the schools to meet current needs as well as use for long-term initiatives including summer learning opportunities.

Deputy Education Commissioner Stacy Smith told Boozman that the state's challenges include the mental fatigue that educators are experiencing at the end of the challenging year. There is also the need to provide literacy interventions to the state's kindergarten and first-grade pupils, many of whom have been kept at home by their families or have been hindered in their learning sounds by the masks they and their teachers wear.

Deputy Education Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer asked Boozman, a member of the Senate's Agriculture Committee, for help in getting U.S. Department of Agriculture approval of the state plan for providing school meals to students -- both on-site and remote learners.

In response to questions from Boozman, Smith and Pfeffer said the state is on track to carry out ACT Aspire testing of students this spring and to use the results of the tests to determine what the impact of covid-19 has been on student learning.

Information for this article was contributed by Jaime Adame and Brianna Kwasnik of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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