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On masks, Arkansas lawmakers intervened where there was no problem



FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Should schools require students to wear masks next year? And who should make that decision?

Both questions have been answered by state lawmakers.

Many districts required masks this school year, which has gone remarkably well considering the circumstances.

Families were offered the choice of in-person, remote, and hybrid learning. Most chose in-person learning, and those numbers have increased. Almost 70% of the state’s public school students now are on site full time, while another 12% are on campus part time.

When the school year began, I thought schools would be sending home many students, if not all of them, as infections rose. That hasn’t been the case. School has occurred. Extracurricular activities have happened. Sports have been played. Testing is happening to determine how much has been lost amidst all these disruptions. And no Arkansan under the age of 18 has died from COVID-19.

This happened for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that young people do much better with this disease than older people do.

But it also occurred because of the efforts of teachers, school administrators, staff members, government employees, parents and the students themselves.

While some of us could do our jobs in protected environments, teachers and other school employees have been exposed every day. Some have gotten sick, and some have died. Many teachers are juggling both in-person and remote students.

Schools also stayed open because of their own efforts to minimize infections. Those efforts included keeping things sanitized, sending home students when they had close contacts with infected people, and requiring masks.

They will not be able to require masks next year because the Legislature passed a law barring government entities, including schools, from doing so.

Here’s what one school superintendent told me about that. The district probably would not have required masks next year, but a decision had not been made. When it opened its state-required end-of-year plan for public comment, a strong majority of respondents favored keeping the requirement.

The superintendent said that even if the district had started next year without a mask requirement, it would have preferred having the flexibility to implement one if infections started increasing. Now it can’t.

Lawmakers were making a statement about the importance of personal freedoms amidst a pandemic that certainly appears to be waning, though not going away, in the United States.

The downside is that even if a district would like to continue requiring masks, it can’t no matter what its community wants. If infections rise in a particular school district, it won’t have that tool in its toolbox. The law has been written covering everyone all the time.

You’ve heard the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” When it comes to responding to the pandemic, Arkansas’ schools aren’t quite as broken as critics often like to say they are. When the governor ordered half a million students home In the spring of 2020, schools started educating them remotely in a few days’ time. It wasn’t the same, but it was something. This year, they figured out how to keep students in school for the entire year. Many students in other parts of the country haven’t been back to the classroom yet.

Arkansans have widely ranging viewpoints about everything related to the pandemic. Unfortunately, masks have become a political issue and a way to signal which team you’re on.

Forget all that. This is about what decisions should be left at the local level, where government officials – elected school boards and their superintendents in this case – can listen to their community and respond flexibly and quickly to changing circumstances. You can’t rewrite a law unless the Legislature comes back to Little Rock.

When there’s a big issue like this, two questions have to be answered. The second is, what should be done? The first is, who should decide? State lawmakers answered both.