As school resumed recently during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most hotly debated issues has been whether schools should require masks for students and staff to help prevent spread of the disease that in Arkansas has infected 487,000 as of Oct. 1 and been attributed to 7,499 deaths as of mid-September.
Those opposed to mask mandates say they are ineffective and hinder communication, while those in favor of the mandates argue that they are saving lives and preventing illnesses, hospitalizations and quarantining that can disrupt learning.
Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) was a leading proponent of legislation passed to ban schools from requiring a mask mandate.
“There are various studies showing that cloth masks are very ineffective,” Garner said. “The data from 70 percent of the schools recently showed only a 0.2 percent difference in transmission between masked and unmasked schools. If you talk to school teachers and parents, you see why. It is almost impossible to get kids to wear a mask all day.”
Garner said there are psychological and other damages from wearing masks.
“A woman called me whose child is deaf and communicates by seeing facial expressions,” he said. “Now she is unable to communicate with classmates. There are negative impacts beyond comfort that we seem to forget when we make these big government mandates.”
Garner said for the past 18 months, the state did what health officials recommended. Schools and businesses were shuttered early in the pandemic, and there was a statewide mask mandate — yet Arkansas’ worst surge occurred during the winter months.
He says, “Now with the delta surge, they are pushing the failed ideas again. It should be the parents’ choice if they want to have their children masked or not. Any big government mandate that takes that power from them is wrong.”
Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock, which has 715 students, has a mask mandate. Principal Steve Straessle said the school decided to go that route in support of families with children still too young to receive the vaccine.
“We have defaulted to the CDC and the Arkansas Department of Health in terms of mitigation efforts relative to COVID-19 spread, so we plan to keep the mask mandate in place at least until the younger kids have the opportunity for full vaccination,” Straessle said. “Our families, students and staff have been overwhelmingly supportive. While no one wishes to wear a mask, our desire to be on campus and enjoy all of our important cultural milestones far outweighs the discomfort of a mask. Wearing a mask is a nuisance. Missing out on the important high-school moments is intolerable.”
Catholic High had only three positive COVID cases in the first five weeks of school, and Straessle believes wearing masks alongside the high student-body vaccination rate (more than 70 percent) has contributed positively to this.
“The bottom line is that our students and our staff will do what it takes to avoid going virtual again,” he said. “They’ll do what it takes to enjoy a healthy and safe learning environment.”
On Sept. 14, the Springdale School District board voted to allow a temporary face covering policy for grades K-7 to expire, making face coverings optional for all students and staff. Jared Cleveland, superintendent, said the district has experienced low COVID student positivity numbers from K-12, and wants to minimize quarantines as much as possible.
“To date, we believe our district staff is 85 percent to 90 percent vaccinated,” Cleveland said. “We hope these numbers increase and that vaccines will soon become available for all ages.”
Cleveland said while the mask mandate for K-7 is gone, the district continues to welcome protections such as hand sanitizing, continued voluntary face coverings, vaccinations and appropriate social distancing.
An ADH report indicates that the Springdale district, which has 23,250 students, has the most COVID cases of any public school in the state. According to ADH, from Aug. 1 to Sept. 22, Springdale schools had 665 cases of COVID including 90 among staff members and 443 among students. It was estimated 94 cases were active as of Sept. 22.
With nearly 12,000 students, the Pulaski County Special School District instituted a 60-day mask mandate on Aug. 10. The mandate was on the agenda for the scheduled Oct. 12 board meeting. Jessica Duff, executive director of communications, said the district has received some complaints about the policy, but nothing extreme like protests or blatant noncompliance.
“Our students are doing a fantastic job wearing masks all day,” Duff said. “We attribute that in part to them seeing staff wearing them all day and having worn masks last year. We believe there is a strong correlation between students and staff wearing masks each day to the lower number of positive COVID-19 cases in the district.”
In mid-September, the district saw the lowest number of positive cases and quarantines seen since school started. The district had 30 active cases with a total of 219 COVID cases as of the ADH report on Sept. 20.
Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, believes there is no debate among health professionals that masks prevent transmission of COVID and other respiratory viruses.
“Masks are important but are not the only strategy to protect our kids,” Thompson said. “Schools also need to be looking at ventilation, social distancing and good hygiene. But schools can only do their part. We need to make sure that parents safeguard their kids after school and on weekends. And vaccination of children who are eligible is the best path for protecting them. Currently vaccines are only approved for children ages 12 to 18, but approval of vaccines for those ages 5 to 11 is expected by the end of October.”
Thompson said Arkansas is headed in the right direction with new cases of COVID declining. But it will take everyone — schools, workplaces, families and faith communities — working together to break transmission of the virus, he added.
“Obviously, there is potential for new variants, but I hope that doesn’t happen. The more people we get vaccinated and protected, the quicker we will be able to get back to normal.”