Governor Calls Special Session to Amend K-12 Mask Mandate Ban

Hutchinson also reinstated a public health emergency in Arkansas.

A group of young students wearing medical masks in the classroom.

Legislators are expected to convene next week to discuss the amendment of a ban on mask mandates for public schools, Governor Asa Hutchinson announced during a press conference this afternoon. 

Act 1002, which was signed into law earlier this year, prohibits state agencies from issuing mandatory face covering requirements. Sen. Trent Garner, a Republican from El Dorado, sponsored the law, which does not apply to private businesses, state-controlled health care facilities, Department of Corrections facilities or facilities operated by the Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services.

Lawmakers are being asked to amend the new law to restore local control to school districts when it comes to implementing mask requirements. The amendment would be specific to K-12 schools because children under the age of 12 are not approved to receive the vaccine, Hutchinson said.

“This is necessary really for providing local school boards the ability to protect those most vulnerable — young people 12 and under as they go to school,” he said.

The current law applies to public schools, but not private schools. Students at Catholic elementary schools in Arkansas, for example, will be required to wear masks during the upcoming school year, according to officials with the Diocese of Little Rock.

Parents and school officials have voiced concerns about an inability to implement mask mandates at school as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have surged throughout July. To date, 33,184 cases have been reported by the Arkansas Department of Health this month. That’s about 6,200 more than all of the cases confirmed in March through June.

The Little Rock School District board approved a resolution Monday to petition lawmakers to overturn the mask mandate ban. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance Tuesday recommending all teachers, staff students and school visitors mask up regardless of vaccination status. 

The governor has consulted with Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey who said getting enough votes to amend the law is “going to be a heavy lift,” but Hutchinson remains optimistic.

“I have confidence that as the legislature looks at this, they will understand…that it’s a conservative principle to utilize local decision-making and not everything fits statewide,” he said. 

Students return to the classroom in August so any legislative action taken will need to include an emergency clause for changes to be implemented at the start of the school year. Hutchinson emphasized he will not impose a statewide mask mandate because there is a law in place that prohibits him from doing so.

“It’s important to keep the focus on the vaccines and not on this mask debate; that really is important,” he said. 

The Arkansas Department of Health reported 11 more deaths and 2,843 new COVID-19 cases today. It’s one of the highest single day increases since the start of the pandemic. Due to the recent surge in cases, Hutchinson issued another public health emergency that goes into effect today and will last for 60 days. 

The proclamation, which will be reviewed by the General Assembly, allows the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management to seek health care staffing assistance through an interstate compact. As of this afternoon, 1,055 Arkansans were in the hospital because of COVID-19. The huge increase in hospitalizations is putting a strain on hospitals statewide, many of whom have reported their ICUs are at or near capacity.

“Today we have, I believe it is, four COVID patients that are waiting in ambulances to be able to find a hospital to go to — that constitutes an emergency and a public health crisis,” Hutchinson said.

The proclamation will also allow officials to ease licensure for health care workers returning to the profession to help speed up entry into service to increase hospital staffing. 

Hutchinson has requested federal assistance to analyze the state’s bed capacity for COVID patients. Federal officials are sending a surge response team to Arkansas, but the governor said they have not confirmed a date for their visit.  

More information about the state of the pandemic in Arkansas is available on the Department of Health’s website

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.