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First day of special session ends with uncertainty amid Arkansas COVID surge

The 93rd General Assembly kicked off the start of the special session on Wednesday (Aug.4) to debate amending ACT 1002 – a ban on mask mandates. (KATV Photo){p}{/p}
The 93rd General Assembly kicked off the start of the special session on Wednesday (Aug.4) to debate amending ACT 1002 – a ban on mask mandates. (KATV Photo)

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The 93rd General Assembly kicked off the start of the special session on Wednesday to debate amending ACT 1002, a ban on mask mandates.

Two bills were filed in the morning, but just one was debated in the afternoon.

Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, filed HB 1003 and presented it in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. Following a three-hour debate, Mayberry pulled her bill down to amend it and plans to run it again.

Despite an effort to make amendments, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said he didn’t believe this changed votes yet but conversations are ongoing.

Her proposal would allow local school boards to implement a mask mandate based on the number of infections in their community. Using the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement’s data, a board could implement a mandate if they have 50 new infections per 10,000 residents in a 14-day period.

A mandate would only apply to students under 12 years old as specified by the governor’s call.

The current proposal would allow the board to implement the mandate for up to 60 days, however, following the debate Mayberry told KATV she would amend it to 30 days. Following that time period, a board would have the option to reassess and place another mandate if necessary.

Mayberry noted that in circumstances where students can spread out such as on the playground or in a gym that masks would not be required.

Along with Mayberry, Marion School District Superintendent Glen Fenter spoke in favor of the bill. Fenter’s district began the school year last week and have already had to quarantine 730 students and staff, he said so far 43 people have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Two days into our second week, we have 27 positive cases and have quarantined 562 as of last evening,” Fenter said. “My concern is [that we] can’t teach our kids if they’re quarantined.”

Dr. Heather Young, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, confirmed that masks do not harm a child.

“We have not seen any children being hospitalized as a consequence of wearing a mask, but right now with this Delta variant we are seeing the rates of COVID-positive children in our hospitals rising astronomically,” she said.

Dr. Joe Thompson, ACHI’s executive director, confirmed that based on the infection rates at least 100 school districts would qualify for a mask mandate under Mayberry’s proposal.

Several members of the community spoke for and against the bill. Arguments against the bill included that parents have the right to choose whether their student needs to wear a mask and that masks don’t work. Those supporting the bill, including medical professionals, argued masks help stop the spread and protect children.

State Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who said she doesn’t believe there should be a mandate for masks across the entire state also said, “This bill doesn’t go nearly far enough.”

Flowers added that she doesn’t believe there should be a ban on local municipalities, counties and schools from taking necessary steps to protect their communities.

Conservative gun-rights activist Jan Morgan, who has announced her candidacy against U.S. Sen. John Boozman, spoke against Mayberry’s proposal.

“It is time that we stop mandating the lives of the people of this state,” said Morgan. “We can debate the efficacy of masks versus non-mask, vaccine versus non-vaccine, but what we cannot debate today is the individual right of a parent to decide what is in the best interest of his or her child.”

Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, said he didn’t think the bill would pass out of committee and that he had issues with it.

Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Clarksville, made the point that he would rather delay the beginning of the school year due to the Delta variant. He said he wouldn’t vote for Mayberry’s bill either.

Mayberry agreed to pull her bill and make amendments.

The second bill filed, whose main sponsor is Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, would allow school districts to implement COVID-19 related policies including a mask mandate.

Clark’s proposal would also allow parents to transfer their student to another school district because of policies, or lack thereof.

The bill would allow transfers to public school districts, charter schools, home schooling, private schools or virtual academies. The funding associated with the student would also transfer.

KATV reached out to Clark and he said his intent is to allow parents to transfer their student if the school doesn’t implement policies addressing the pandemic. The bill also allows a parent to request a transfer if a mask mandate is implemented. He said at the end of the day, parents should have the local control.

The bill is on the Senate Education Committee’s agenda for Thursday. That meeting starts at 9 a.m.

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