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'We hope it's temporary': Arkansas school boards enacting mask mandate

School starts on Monday, Aug. 16 for many districts around the state and board members are deciding this week whether or not to make masks mandatory.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — To mask or not to mask — that's what some school districts are deciding now. 

Several schools have called special board meetings this week now that mandating masks for students and staff is up to them.

Pulaski County Special School District's superintendent proposed to the board that masks will be required indoors, effective immediately, for staff, students and guests on Tuesday night. 

Several other school districts, like Benton Public Schools, already made the pivotal decision the day before. 

"We are going to start the 2021-2022 school year the same way that we ended the last school year, where masks will be optional for staff and students," Public Relations Director Isabella Bradley said. 

That optional decision at Benton Public Schools came during Monday night's regular board meeting.

According to Bradley, the board also approved to purchase air purifiers for every classroom in the district. 

"We always have the health and safety of our students as a top priority. We want to see our kids safe, we want to see our staff safe and we feel this decision will do that," she said.

Dr. Joe Thompson and his team at the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement came out on Tuesday with a call for action. 

They urged for all school districts to require masks indoors for staff and students pre-k to 12th grade. 

"My fear is that if we don't use all tools necessary to protect our children. We are going to have more sick, we are going to have more hospitalized and unfortunately we may lose more kids than we need to," he said.

With the rate and intensity the delta variant is hitting our community, Thompson fears of more outbreaks if districts don't take these steps. 

"We're at a time and we're at a space with this virus that we need to use all our tools. Masks, ventilators, distancing, hygiene, cleaning. We need to go into the school year as safely as we can," he said.

Over in Hot Springs, Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Nehus said the school board voted Monday night to require masks for all students and staff until September 21.

"We hope it's temporary. This is not something we put in place for the whole semester, this is not something we put in place for the whole year," she said.

While the short-term time stamp is on the mandate, Nehus said protecting students when they come back from summer break is top priority.

"Here in Garland County our cases are up and they're high and it's very scary and we understand that, so ultimately we've got to do what's best for kids," she said.

The decision to mask or not was also discussed at meetings of the Conway and Bryant School District on Tuesday night. 

Several other districts have meetings scheduled for later this week.

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