The Arkansas State Supreme Court sided with the Marion School District and the Little Rock School District Thursday, keeping in place a judge’s ruling from August that halts enforcement of a ban on mask mandates by schools and other government bodies.
Justices denied a request by the state to stay the August decision. The move will allow Marion and other school districts in Arkansas to continue mask mandates for students and school faculty. The mask mandate has been credited with a dramatic reduction in the number of Marion School District students who have been forced to quarantine under Covid-19 protocols.
“This is great news for our students, our schools, and our community,” said Marion superintendent, Dr. Glen Fenter. “Through this entire pandemic, we have been working to follow the science, keeping the safety and wellness of our students as our top priority. The proper wearing of facemasks is a proven way to slow the spread of Covid. We are grateful that the court had the wisdom to allow us to continue to utilize this tool.”
Fenter said he is grateful for both the support and leadership of the Marion School Board, as well as the partnership of the Little Rock School District in tackling this issue, a sentiment that was shared by Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore.
“I’m just really proud of our two school districts,” Poore said. “We were the leaders in this. What we did accomplished two things: First, it kept kids in school. The mask mandate changed the whole thing with how we are able to handle quarantines. Beyond that, I actually believe we saved lives in terms of reducing the number of positive cases in our schools.”
Marion began the school year on July 26. Under state law, no mask requirement was in place. In the first several weeks of the school year, positive cases of Covid-19 rose significantly, and student quarantines skyrocketed. By the end of the second week of school, more than 1,000 MSD students had been placed in quarantine. This prompted the Marion School District to join the Little Rock School District in a lawsuit challenging the state law. On August 6, Judge Tim Fox issued the injunction that blocked enforcement of the law, allowing Marion and school districts across Arkansas to implement mask mandates.
Marion enacted its mask mandate on August 11, with quarantines related to exposures before the mask mandate continuing through August 16. The facemask rule is intended to both protect the health of students and staff and reduce the number of students missing school because of quarantine. Under current public health guidelines, individuals exposed to a confirmed case of Covid-19 do not need to be quarantined if they have no symptoms and both the infected and the exposed individual were correctly wearing a mask.
The effect of the MSD mask mandate has been dramatic. In the 2 weeks before the mask mandate took effect, the district averaged 12.70 positive cases and 131.70 quarantines a day. In the six weeks since then, those figures have fallen to 6.00 positive cases and 27.77 quarantines a day. (For complete MSD Covid data, visit https://www.msd3.org/page/covid-data.)
“Masks have been a game-changer for us,” said Fenter. “We know that the best way for our students to learn is for them to be at school, in a classroom, in front of one of our amazing teachers. The mask mandate gives us a way to keep kids at school. With the alarming rise of local cases, particularly in regard to the Delta variant, it was imperative for us to take action to protect our students.”
Though the court denied the request for a stay on Thursday, the case can still continue to trial with Judge Fox’s injunction remaining in place; no date has been set.