Arkansas Center for Health Improvement urges schools, colleges to require masks

In a statement issued Tuesday morning, the Health Policy Board of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement said that with the Delta variant spiking across Arkansas, all K-12 schools, colleges, and universities in the state should start the school year with indoor mask requirements for students, teachers, and staff members, regardless of vaccination status.

The board also recommended that schools consider requesting waivers from the Arkansas Department of Education to delay the start of the school year, in addition to other recommendations.

The schools board of Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock both have meetings tonight to discuss a mask requirement with the superintendents of both districts urging the use of masks.

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The board’s statement, adopted in a meeting Tuesday with no dissenting votes, reads:

“With the 2021-2022 school year beginning next week for many schools across the state, we are in a new and different battle with COVID-19 that requires leadership and action. COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations among children are escalating at a time when community spread of the highly contagious delta variant is rampant and our hospitals are at or near capacity.

“Unfortunately, children below age 12 are not currently eligible to be protected through vaccination, and only about one in five of those ages 12‒18 is fully vaccinated. The combination of these factors is likely to fuel the spread of COVID-19 as in-person instruction begins, and mitigation strategies are necessary to protect students and personnel from exposure and decrease the potential for disruption of in-person instruction and extracurricular activities.

“The ACHI Health Policy Board calls on school boards to adopt indoor mask requirements for the next 30 days for all students, teachers, and staff, regardless of vaccination status, consistent with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mask requirements should be subject to extension based on viral spread within the school or the school’s community. To seek to make schools safe for all students and personnel, schools should also invest in building ventilation, testing, cleaning and disinfection to prepare for the school year and encourage and support those who are eligible to become protected through vaccination.

“School boards may also consider requesting a waiver from the Department of Education to delay the start of the school year to ensure the opportunity to appropriately consider available mitigation strategies, and the sufficiency of those strategies, as well as to increase the time for protection to develop among those recently vaccinated. School strategies may change depending on the level of transmission in a school or the school’s community, but the high level of viral transmission that we are seeing throughout the state right now calls for deployment of all available tools.

“Recognizing the potential for viral spread among college students as classes commence, the ACHI Health Policy Board also calls on higher education institutions to adopt indoor mask requirements for students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. CDC guidance recommends that in any county where the transmission risk is substantial or high, individuals should wear masks while indoors, regardless of vaccination status. All colleges and universities are located in counties with exceptionally high COVID-19 transmission, and students may be traveling from areas of high transmission. Consequently, mask requirements and other mitigation strategies in higher education settings are necessary.” 

Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO of ACHI and a pediatrician, said the board’s statement is an urgent call to action for school leaders.

“This fight has changed because the enemy has changed,” he said. “The Delta variant is more than twice as contagious as previous strains of this virus, and it is attacking children at a rate we have not seen before. Over the next few weeks, the crisis facing our state could be catastrophic. School districts have the legal authority to act now. Communities have a moral imperative to act in the best interests of children’s safety; failure to act will mean more children will get sick, more will be hospitalized, and more will die.”