Gov. Asa Hutchinson has called members of the 93rd General Assembly into Extraordinary Session to begin at 10 a.m. on August 4 to create an exception to Act 1002 that will give public school boards flexibility to protect those school children who are 11 and younger and not eligible for a vaccine.
Act 1002 prohibits state and local government, including school boards, from requiring people to wear a mask. Governor Hutchinson will ask legislators to provide an exception to the law that would grant each school board the authority to decide whether to require students younger than 12 to wear a mask.
“Under CDC guidelines, students 11 and younger cannot receive the COVID vaccine, and without it, they are at a greater risk of contracting the virus, particularly the Delta variant,” Hutchinson said Tuesday after he issued the call. “COVID‐19 impact is escalating among children, particularly those 12 and older, as we have seen in the increased number and severity of COVID‐19 cases at Arkansas Children’s during July.
“Last week, Children’s daily census of 24 COVID-19 patients was a 50 percent increase over previous peaks. Because of this increased risk of illness in children, we see the necessity of allowing leaders in school districts the flexibility to decide whether students wear masks. We must allow local school boards to make the best decision for the students in their schools.
“I understand that some legislators are reluctant to allow school boards this freedom, even in this limited way,” Hutchinson said. “But the exceptions for which I am asking are true to the conservative principle that puts control in the hands of local government.
“Some argue it should be up to the parents to decide for the children. For that reason, school boards will have many options after listening to the parents. The goal is to be safe and to keep schools open. Local flexibility will help get us there.
“I am asking lawmakers to simply allow public school boards and open enrollment charter schools to make their own decision to implement masking protocols to protect children younger than 12 in a school building, school bus, or other educational setting where several students are in close proximity.”
Last week, seven children were in Arkansas Children’s ICU, and four were on ventilators. The average length of stay and the number of days on a ventilator have doubled for COVID‐19 patients during July compared to January.
Hutchinson also will ask members of the General Assembly to affirm the decision of the director of Workforce Services to terminate Arkansas’s participation in extraordinary federal unemployment benefit and relief programs related to COVID-19.
“It is more important that we reduce the number of unemployed and put more people to work than it is for the state to accept any federal relief programs related to unemployment,” Hutchinson said. “I will ask legislators to affirm that the director of Workforce Services may exercise discretion in her decisions to participate in or to cease participation in any voluntary, optional, special, or emergency program that the federal government offers.”