Hutchinson: School districts should decide on masking requirements


Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in his news press conference he would ask school districts to “affirmatively look at whether a mask requirement is needed in the school.”

The state is setting COVID-19 records with a 25.5% positivity rate over the past seven days and a record 6,562 cases reported Monday, the governor said. The increase is blamed on the omicron variant, which is said to be more contagious than other COVID-19 strains.

“This tells us we are entering a period of probably the greatest challenge that we’ve faced during the pandemic,” Hutchinson said.

One of those challenges is what to do now that children are returning to school.

Hutchinson signed into a law a bill that banned school systems from implementing mask mandates. A Pulaski County judge struck down the law last week, saying it didn’t differentiate between public and private schools.

The governor said he was in favor of the ruling.

“The ruling that Act 1002 is unconstitutional serves as a restraint against the legislative branch and helps reset the correct balance between the branches of government,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “The ruling also makes it clear that local school boards have the authority to protect the health of students during the pandemic.”

The Arkansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians and the Arkansas Education Association issued a joint statement Monday that asked schools “to return to masking requirements for staff and students to help keep buildings open.”

“Educators are leaving their positions as a result of the impact of COVID-19 on their students, themselves, and their families,” the organizations said in a joint statement. “Districts cannot continue to ignore the rapidly changing learning and working conditions that must be addressed to maintain safe and healthy classrooms, buildings and school buses.”

Hutchinson also said statistics show a 25% decrease in COVID-19 cases in schools with a mask mandate.

Dr. Jose Romero, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health, said he was concerned about the state’s only children’s hospital, which has only one satellite campus.

“There is a chance that with a large number of cases we could overwhelm that system,” Romero said.

Hutchinson said the state invested $60 million in expanding intensive care units and medical “surge” space if more beds are needed.

While 87% of Arkansans over age 65 are fully vaccinated, 53.1% of the general population is vaccinated. Nearly 87% of those hospitalized are not vaccinated, according to information provided by the governor.

When asked whether he would consider a statewide vaccination mandate, Hutchinson, “We’re just beyond a statewide, government mandate.”

“My position has been very consistent that we should not be mandating businesses to require vaccines,” Hutchinson said. “At the same time, we should not be prohibiting businesses from requiring vaccines.”

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