Why one governor regrets signing a ban on school mask mandates

One large Florida district will require families to opt out of mask requirements
By: | August 4, 2021
Administrators is districts requiring masks say the mandate is critical to holding in-person instruction and preventing COVID transmissions.Administrators in districts requiring masks say the mandate is critical to holding in-person instruction and preventing COVID transmissions.

The surging delta variant has driven at least one state’s governor to attempt to overturn a law prohibiting schools from mandating masks.

With cases rises in Arkansas’ children, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday he regretted signing a bill this spring that prohibits school boards and other government agencies from mandating masks.

“I signed it at the time because our cases were at a very low point,” Hutchinson said at a press conference that streamed on Twitter Tuesday. “In hindsight, I wish that had not become law.”

Hutchinson has called the state’s legislature into a special session Wednesday to create an exception to the law. He now wants to give school boards the authority to require masks for students younger than 12 because those children are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The number of COVID patients at Arkansas Children’s hospital has increased by 50% over previous peaks. Last week, seven children were in the hospital’s  ICU and four were on ventilators, Hutchinson said.

When COVID cases plunged in the spring snd early summer, elected officials in several red states barred schools from mandating masks.

“The exceptions for which I am asking are true to the conservative principle that puts control in the hands of local government,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “Some argue it should be up to the parents to decide for the children. For that reason, school boards will have many options after listening to the parents.”

Where students will again wear masks 

A growing number of districts large and small, and in all areas of the country, are announcing that masks will be required when the new school year starts in the coming weeks.

Denver Public Schools is requiring all students and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure we have a full year of in-person instruction and support for our students, with minimal disruptions,” Superintendent Alex Marrero said on the district’s website. “This masking requirement provides a strong safeguard to help ensure a full year of in-person learning and support for our scholars.

In Idaho, the Boise School District has also reinstated a mask mandate.

“We know from last school year that face masks work to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Boise School Board President Dave Wagers said in a statement. “We’re disappointed that we have been forced to take what feels like a step backward, but our top priority is providing students with a high-quality education in a safe and effective learning environment.”

Quarantines will not be required if a student is exposed to COVID at school if both students are wearing a mask and the student who is a close contact has no symptoms, the district said.

In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to strip funding from districts that mandate masks, one large school system has enacted an opt-out policy.

The Duval County School Board, which covers Jacksonville, has required students to wear masks unless parents or guardians complete the paperwork to opt out, Jacksonville.com reported. Orange County Public Schools, which includes Orlando, has required employees to wear masks, ClickOrlando.com reported.

The Phoenix Elementary School District, after an emergency school board meeting, also reinstated universal masking.

“The Phoenix Elementary School District believes this is one viable option to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses we see at the beginning of a school year like the common cold, strep throat and the flu,” the district said on its website.

Wake County Public Schools, the largest district in North Carolina, will require universal masking, regardless of vaccinations status, when the school year begins, The News & Observer reported.

With younger students ineligible for the vaccine, and vaccination rates lagging among older students, masking remains the best way to prevent the spread o COVID in classrooms, Dr. Danny Benjamin, a professor of pediatrics in the Duke University School of Medicine, said Wednesday during a webinar on safely reopening K-12 schools.

Yet, elected officials in several states refuse to follow the best medical advice, Benjamin said.

“The people whose job it is to keep you alive encourage masking,” he said. “The people who are running for re-election have very mixed opinions about whether there should be masking.”