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Univ. of Arkansas board votes to require masks on campuses

August 11, 2021 GMT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The University of Arkansas’ governing board voted Wednesday to require masks on its campuses, as dozens of school districts imposed their own mandates following a judge’s decision to block the state’s mask mandate ban.

Arkansas’ COVID-19 hospitalizations reached a new high point for the third day in a row, growing by 11 to 1,446 patients in the state’s hospitals. There are only 14 intensive care unit beds available in the state, according to the Department of Health. The state on Monday broke the record it set in January for the most virus hospitalizations since the pandemic began.

The schools’ mask mandates have been approved after a judge last week issued a preliminary injunction against Arkansas’ law banning mask mandates by school and other governmental entities. The judge said the prohibition violated the Arkansas Constitution.

“I think it indicates that people may have underestimated the desire to ensure the safety of our kids, no matter what,” said University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson, who has urged schools to adopt mask requirements before classes start statewide next week.

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The UA system’s board of trustees unanimously approved a resolution directing its campuses to develop face mask policies for indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status. The resolution said the policies should be in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has called for indoor masks in areas with high transmission rates of COVID-19.

Arkansas has the fourth highest rate of new COVID-19 cases per capita in the country, according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers. The state reported 2,940 new cases on Wednesday and 20 more COVID-19 deaths.

The state’s surge in cases has been due to the ultra-contagious delta variant and the state’s low vaccination rate.

“We think this is a way to try to get our campuses back to as close to a face-to-face and traditional experience this fall while also acknowledging this very dangerous variant,” University System President Donald Bobbitt told the board before the vote.

At least three dozen school districts and charter schools have approved mask mandates since the ruling. Arkansas Tech University announced it was also enforcing a mask mandate on Wednesday. The University of Central Arkansas said Tuesday it was requiring masks indoors.

Republican Sen. Trent Garner, who sponsored the mask mandate ban, said he was disappointed in the districts approving requirements and said they’re not listening to parents opposed to them. The districts imposing bans include El Dorado, which is located in Garner’s district.

“What these school districts just said is, ‘parents, we know better than you how to keep your kids safe,’” Garner said.

The majority-Republican Legislature last week rejected Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s call to roll back the law for some public schools. Hutchinson, a Republican, has said he regrets signing the law and agrees with the judge’s ruling against it. Hutchinson on Monday said he’s hiring an outside attorney to represent him in the case.

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Associated Press Writer Jill Bleed contributed to this report