LITTLE ROCK -- Students and staff in the Little Rock School District will start the school year this month with the option of wearing masks to defend against the spread of the covid-19 virus, the School Board voted Thursday.
In two separate 8-0 votes with one board member absent, the board for the 21,000-student district:
• Ended what has been the mandatory face mask requirement for students and staff that was in place for much of the past two school years.
• Severed the district's reliance on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's weekly report on covid-19 case numbers in the community as the sole basis for determining whether mask-wearing is required in the schools.
• Authorized Superintendent Jermall Wright to make decisions on requiring masks, virtual learning or school closing decisions in consultation with staff and the School Board -- in the event conditions change in regard to covid-19.
"This request is being made to allow for timely decisions and to prevent the need to call special board meetings every time conditions within the district or county change," Wright said in his recommendations to the board.
Wright and his staff presented a lengthy two-page rationale for making the face masks optional and describing the circumstances under which he and his staff -- in consultation with the School Board -- might revert to requiring face masks.
Classes start for students on Aug. 22.
Board member Evelyn Callaway said she agreed with the recommendations.
"I want everyone to be safe," Callaway said about the change from the past. "Somebody needs to make the decision. I want to put that in Dr. Wright's lap."
The board action to make the masks optional -- at least for the time being -- comes from a school district that a year ago successfully sued state leaders in a case that went to the Arkansas Supreme Court to be able to mandate face masks on district properties.
The board decisions Thursday evening came on the same day that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it was relaxing several of its earlier guidelines on dealing with covid-19 in schools and elsewhere.
In the written rationale for changing the face mask requirement, Wright and his staff noted that covid-19 vaccines are now available for all school-age children and that making masks optional will satisfy people who wish to wear masks for protection as well as those who do not want to wear masks.
"This is the least potentially disruptive option," the rationale stated.
A total of 93 people sent emails to the board before the meeting regarding the mask issue. Of that total, 91 were opposed to mandatory masks, Wright said. Additionally, four people personally addressed the board in favor of optional masks.
Wright also said in the rational that the Little Rock district was the only remaining district in Pulaski County and possible in the state to require masks. He warned that failure to make masks optional carried the risk of alienating families at a time when the district is attempting to retain and increase its enrollment.
Board member Vicki Hatter noted that nearly 60% of 747 teachers who responded to a survey on the matter favored optional mask wearing.
Wright said there may be at some point a need to reinstate mandatory mask-wearing or take other actions.
Mask requirements might be reinstated if, for example, the City of Little Rock institutes a mask requirement, he wrote, or if other government agencies make mask-wearing mandatory on mass transit.
If information regarding a new covid variant is confirmed, the district may reinstate masking, he wrote.
If at any time the district acquires 30 cases per 1o,000 staff and students for seven consecutive days, all staff and students will be required to wear a mask, or all schools may temporarily transition to virtual learning or the district may temporarily close.
"If active covid-19 cases in LRSD reaches or exceeds .87% of the staff or student population, all staff and students will be required to wear a mask, or all schools may temporarily transition to virtual learning or the district may temporarily close," Wright said.