A Bureau of Legislative Research survey of the state's public schools showed a higher percentage of students and employees with covid-19 in school districts and charter school systems that have no mask policies than in districts and charter systems with full mask policies.
The survey also revealed that a larger percentage of students and staff members were quarantined as a result of covid-19 in districts and charter systems that had no mask policies than in districts and charter systems with full mask policies.
Several lawmakers said Tuesday that they want the bureau to seek additional information in its next survey of schools, and a few of them questioned the state's quarantine policy.
The bureau conducted the survey in response to a state lawmaker who asked about the impact of mask policies in public schools on the number of students and employees testing positive for covid-19 and on those quarantined because of covid-19, said Julie Holt, administrator of policy analysis and research services for the Bureau of Legislative Research.
All state lawmakers' projects are considered to be confidential by the Bureau of Legislative Research and "in this case we were asked to share our results with superintendents, and we did that on Friday," and "this morning we were asked to share the results with the committee," she told the House and Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committees.
Bureau officials waited until the public schools had been in session for two weeks, to cover the covid-19 incubation period, before conducting their survey, she said. They sent the survey to schools early in the morning on Sept. 1 and asked the superintendents to respond that afternoon, she said.
On Aug. 6, a Pulaski County circuit judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking the state from enforcing Act 1002 of 2021's ban on mask mandates by most state and local governmental entities. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox's ruling came hours after the Legislature adjourned a three-day special session called by Hutchinson, who asked lawmakers to change Act 1002 so local school boards could decide whether to require students younger than 12 years old to wear masks. Those children are ineligible to be vaccinated for covid-19. Lawmakers balked at changing the state law.
Holt said the bureau received 180 responses to its survey, for a 70% response rate, which is good for a one-day survey.
She said the bureau divided the school districts and charter school systems into two groups after it received the requested information.
One group was about 80 school districts or charter school systems that had full mask policies in place for two full weeks that had been implemented on Aug. 18 or before, Holt said.
The second group of about 100 districts and charter systems included about 63 that had no full mask policies as of Sept. 1; about 17 that had partial mask policies; and about 20 that had full mask policies in place for less than two full weeks, she said.
"We compared the average percent for those schools that had that full mask policy length for two weeks against the other schools," Holt said. "So what we found is in all cases that the percentage of students or employees with covid or quarantine was higher in the schools that had no mask policy versus the schools that had a mask policy."
The results show statistically significant results in all cases except for the comparison of average percent of students testing positive for covid-19, she said.
Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, said the survey shows 8.5% of students quarantined in schools without mask policies compared with 4.6% of students in those with mask policies.
But the survey also shows 1.4% of students positive for covid-19 in schools without mask policies compared with 1.2% in those with mask policies, he said.
"It seems like the number of cases would dictate the number of quarantines," Payton said.
He said he wondered if the difference is because of the state's quarantine policy.
"Can we circle back in a couple three weeks and do a survey to find out how effective the quarantines are because, if the unmasked school districts are quarantining at a significantly higher rate, and they are still not seeing lower results in the positivity rate, then the quarantines would seem to be totally ineffective?"
Payton said he wants a survey to determine whether "that excessive quarantine is effective or not."
The bureau's survey showed 1.3% of the employees positive for covid-19 in schools without full mask policies compared with 0.9% of employees in schools with mask policies.
It also showed that 1.9% of the employees were quarantined because of covid-19 in districts and systems without full mask policies, compared with 1.1% of the employees in those with mask policies.
Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked whether the bureau tried to determine if the positive cases happened inside or outside the school setting.
Holt said the bureau "did not ask the question."
The lawmaker who asked for this survey has asked the bureau to conduct the survey again, so the bureau will be working with that lawmaker on questions, she said.
Hammer asked if the bureau asked school officials to separate out the quarantines that occurred because of in-school contact and those that resulted from outside contact.
Holt said the bureau didn't ask for the information in that way.
Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, asked whether "these numbers were not controlled to the number of people who have received a covid-19 vaccine."
Holt said the bureau didn't ask anything about the students and employees' covid-19 vaccination.
Boyd said he wants Holt to look across the state and determine if there are certain ZIP codes with more people with covid-19 vaccines and whether the schools in the same ZIP codes are adopting mask mandates.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, asked if the survey shows the number of students who contracted covid-19 while quarantined.
Holt said, "We don't know that from the survey we did last week."
Earlier in the day, Education Secretary Johnny Key told the House and Senate Education Committees that under state law, the secretary of health, in consultation with the governor, has authority over all instances of quarantine and isolation.
"This is a law that precedes covid-19," Key told the committee.
The law states that when the health secretary "has knowledge, or is informed of the existence of a suspected case or outbreak of communicable disease, he shall take whatever steps necessary for the investigation and control of the disease."
Additionally, the law allows the health secretary to impose quarantine restrictions that may be necessary to prevent the introduction of communicable diseases.
Health Secretary Jose Romero released a memo Friday that urged schools to maintain as many mitigation measures as possible, or risk increased spread within the school setting.
Key said the quarantine restrictions that are in place are the same as the ones implemented last year.
An individual can be considered for quarantine if he spends at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone who has been confirmed positive.
Fully vaccinated students or staff members do not need to quarantine if deemed close contacts, unless they have or develop symptoms. Individuals exposed to a confirmed case will not need to quarantine if the individual exposed has no symptoms, and both the infected and exposed individuals consistently and correctly were wearing masks.
If the exposed person is not fully vaccinated, he will be required to quarantine for seven, 10 or 14 days, depending on local policy and guidelines.
The quarantine period can end for individuals experiencing no symptoms if after 10 days without testing or after seven days since close contact exposure and after receiving negative test results.
"We are working closely with school districts to assist with points of contact," Key said. "We help to find parents, staff and students."
Sullivan asked Key if there was any data that showed quarantining students actually works.
"What I can give you is that we were one of the few states that had in-person school last year and that was due to the multiple measures we had in place," Key said.
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, asked Key if the law requiring school boards to follow the direction of the Department of Health when it comes to quarantine was a violation of the right of schools to make their own decisions when Gov. Asa Hutchinson championed removing the mask mandate ban earlier this year.
"I am simply stating what is in the law," Key said. "I believe what you are asking for is an opinion."
Key said if school districts refuse to follow the guidelines set out by the Health Department, then the district could be put on probationary status as punishment.
Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, said several school districts have released metrics that show the number of close contacts that occur at school and outside of school. She said it was possible for the Department of Education to provide guidance to schools across the state to provide delineation on school-based close contacts from outside contacts.
Key said the schools that are using these metrics are mostly larger schools, and it would be too overwhelming for some of the smaller schools to release the same information.
Key said in an email that it is the position of the Department of Education that school districts, under the direction of their respective superintendents and boards of directors, are obliged to adhere to these duties and responsibilities.
CORRECTION: Rep. Megan Godfrey of Springdale is a Democrat. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated her party affiliation.