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Arkansas district’s virus quarantine grows as masks debated

August 5, 2021 GMT
State Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, presents HB1003, which would amend the state ban on mask mandates, during the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. (Tommy Metthe/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP)
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State Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, presents HB1003, which would amend the state ban on mask mandates, during the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. (Tommy Metthe/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP)
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State Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, presents HB1003, which would amend the state ban on mask mandates, during the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. (Tommy Metthe/The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The number of students and staff at an east Arkansas school district who have quarantined because of a coronavirus outbreak grew to more than 700 on Wednesday as lawmakers debated whether to allow schools to mandate masks.

Marion Superintendent Glen Fenter said 730 students and 10 staff members at his district have had to quarantine since classes began last week. Fenter said 34 students and nine staff have tested positive for the virus.

The 4,000-student district’s quarantine grew as lawmakers began a special session focused on efforts to roll back the state’s ban on mask mandates by schools and other government entities. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who signed the ban in April, called lawmakers into session to allow some schools to require masks.

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Fenter warned that his district’s experience could be a harbinger of what the rest of Arkansas could face without action.

“If those circumstances are replicated all across the state after two weeks of school, our state’s going to be in full blown crisis,” he said.

Hutchinson’s effort to allow school mask requirements has faced heavy opposition from fellow Republicans, and legislative leaders have said it doesn’t have enough votes to pass. The bill would need at least two-thirds support in the House and Senate to take effect before school begins statewide.

The sponsor of a proposal that would allow some school boards to mandate masks said she planned to rework her proposal after about three hours of debate for a House committee. Republican Rep. Julie Mayberry’s proposal would allow school boards to vote on whether to require masks in buildings, busses or other areas where children under 12 may be present.

“It gives them one more tool they can use to slow down the spread of COVID-19,” Mayberry said.

Mayberry’s proposal currently would allow boards to mandate masks in schools districts 14-day infection rate at least 50 new cases per 10,000 residents of the district. The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement said 100 districts meet that threshold, based on their most recent data.

Mayberry said she’ll look at changing that threshold, as well as cutting the maximum amount of time schools can impose the mandate from 60 days to 30.

It’s unclear whether those changes will be enough to overcome resistance in the majority-GOP Legislature. Lawmakers have been besieged with calls and emails from people opposing the change, if not the use of masks altogether to stop the virus’s spread.

“There’s a number of people out there who want to discredit masks as a whole,” said Republican Sen. Jonathan Dismang. “All I can tell them is I’ve talked to my local health care professionals and every one of them thinks it’s a tool we should be able to utilize.”

Those feelings were on display from some opponents of Mayberry’s bill who testified during Wednesday’s hearing who cited discredited or false information about masks and the virus. One lawmaker incorrectly suggested children would have had more protection from catching COVID-19. Experts have said vaccines provide more protection against the virus

“It might have been better if we hadn’t masked kids last year and then they developed some natural immunities and we wouldn’t be here today,” Republican Rep. Mary Bentley said.

There is no evidence that wearing masks is harmful to children older than toddler age. Dr. Heather Young, a pediatric infectious disease doctor, pushed back on the false claims about masks.

“They’re an inconvenience but they don’t harm the child,” Young told the panel. “We have not seen any children being hospitalized as a consequence of wearing their mask. But right now, with this delta variant, we’re seeing the rates of COVID positive children in our hospitals rising astronomically.”

Arkansas reported more than 2,800 new virus cases on Wednesday and 15 more deaths from COVID-19. The state’s hospitalizations dropped by 18 to 1,232. The state said 469 COVID-19 patients are in intensive care and 260 are on ventilators.

Lawmakers also advanced another proposal on the session’s agenda that would prevent the state from having to resume supplemental unemployment payments to 69,000 people. Hutchinson in May ended the state’s participation in the program, but a state judge last week ordered the state to resume the payments.

The House and Senate on Thursday are expected to vote on identical proposals that would give the governor the power to end the payments.