Masks still on for those riding the bus

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order that requires masks to be worn on public transportation also applies to students on school buses.

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School districts in Arkansas are now in the awkward position of enforcing the CDC order while also trying to comply with Act 1002 passed by the Arkansas legislature earlier this year that says no mask mandates are allowed in the state.

Arkansas was one of several states across the country that passed legislation prohibiting mask mandates, but the CDC order supersedes state law.

The Arkansas law reads, “all mandatory face covering requirements, including without limitation requirements imposed by executive order of the Governor and the Department of Health … shall end.”

It doesn’t address federal mandates.

Jade Fulce, a public affairs specialist with the CDC, said in a Thursday morning email to that “the order applies unless the state, locality, or territory has stricter requirements in place for protecting the public’s health.”

That’s clearly not the case in Arkansas.

Public Conveyance

While public transportation can mean planes, trains, or transit buses, the guidance issued by the CDC clearly states school buses are also considered a “public conveyance.” In the Frequently Asked Questions section of its website, the CDC addresses school buses.

The FAQ section asks, “Are masks required on school buses?” 

“Yes, passengers and drivers must wear a mask on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems, subject to the exclusions and exemptions in CDC’s Order,” the answer reads.

In Arkansas, local school districts appear to be unaware of the CDC order and that it applies to them.

Dustin Barnes, the communications coordinator for the North Little Rock School District, said Wednesday when asked how the district would comply with the CDC order, “Masks are optional. The [school] board approved this decision back in June.”

“We will not be able to enforce masks -- in the classroom or on buses -- due to the governor's law he signed,” said Jessica Duff, executive director of communications for the Pulaski County Special School District. “Unfortunately, we can only ‘strongly encourage’ that students and staff continue wearing masks this upcoming school year.”

Duff also noted that the district hasn’t received any guidance from the Arkansas Department of Education for the new school year that starts next month.

The CDC order also covers what’s supposed to happen if masks aren’t being worn.

“Operators of public transportation conveyances must refuse to board anyone not wearing a mask that completely covers the mouth and nose,” the CDC site reads. “Operators must also require that everyone on board wears a mask for the entire duration of travel” and “if a passenger refuses to comply, the operator must disembark the person at the earliest safe opportunity.”

The CDC also said, “people who refuse to wear a mask may be subject to a civil penalty.”

Danyelle McNeill, a public information officer with the Arkansas Department of Health, said Thursday, “We’re still working on finalizing school guidance and this would fall under that.”

Back-to-School Plans

The first day of school for local school districts is Aug. 16, but buses will begin running before then, as the first day of high school football practice and the high school golf season both begin on Aug. 2, under two weeks away.

Districts are planning for the school year now.

Duff said by phone on Thursday morning district leadership was having a meeting that day and masks on buses would be discussed.

By Thursday, the state Department of Education and Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office had not responded to requests for comment on the CDC’s mask mandate for school buses. This story will be updated when or if they do.

Not everyone is unaware of the mask mandate for buses.

Becca Green, the director of public engagement for Rock Region Metropolitan Transit Authority, said, “yes” when asked if the public bus and trolley system for Pulaski County was requiring masks for its riders.

“The federal mask mandate is in place until Sept. 13,” she said. “That mandate went in place in February 2021,” and “requiring riders to wear masks is one of several actions [the agency] has taken throughout the pandemic to meet the dual goals of protecting public health … and  keeping as much transit service on the roads as possible.”