Arkansas Schools Get Reprieve as Judge Blocks State From Enforcing Mask Mandate Ban

Schools in Arkansas were granted a reprieve as a judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing a law that bans mask mandates by schools and other governmental bodies, the Associated Press reported.

The move against the law, signed by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson in April, came from Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox following state lawmakers choosing to leave the ban in place.

This week, Hutchinson expressed regret for signing the law and told reporters "in hindsight, I wish that had not become law." He called a special session with lawmakers Friday ahead of Fox's ruling to consider overturning the ban for certain schools but was met with opposition from Republicans.

"I think we're going to come to really regret not taking action," said Democratic Arkansas Sen. Keith Ingram.

"I just hope the consequences aren't fatal for children or staff or teachers in this state," added Ingram, who is the chamber's minority leader.

In Arkansas, the COVID-19 delta variant is contributing to a major spike in infections and hospitalizations.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Mask on a Table in White House
A judge temporarily blocked a mask mandate ban in Arkansas, signed into law by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, granting schools reprieve. In this photo, a mask is placed on the table during a meeting between former U.S. President Donald Trump, Hutchinson and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly in the Cabinet Room of the White House May 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. Doug Mills/Getty Images

The mask ban was being challenged by two lawsuits, including one from a district where more than 800 staff and students are quarantining because of a coronavirus outbreak.

Fox ruled against the measure on multiple grounds, including the argument that it discriminated between public and private schools. Fox issued the ruling hours after lawmakers adjourned the special session.

Hutchinson had said the change was needed to protect children under 12 who can't get vaccinated as the state's virus cases and hospitalizations skyrocket.

A House panel on Thursday rejected two measures that would have allowed some school districts to issue mask requirements.

There had been growing calls to lift the ban before school starts statewide later this month.

Pediatricians and health officials have said masks in schools are needed to protect children, as the delta variant and Arkansas' low vaccination rate fuels the state's spiraling cases. The state on Monday reported its biggest one-day increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began, and the Department of Health on Thursday said only 36 intensive care unit beds were available in the state.

But Hutchinson faced heavy opposition from fellow Republicans, who had been inundated with calls and messages from opponents of masks in schools.

Opponents of lifting the ban who testified before the Legislature repeatedly cited false and discredited claims about the virus, including a woman who falsely suggested COVID-19 doesn't exist.

"You try to talk to someone about this, but there's so much misinformation that's out there you have to try to dispel that and then they'll go to another one and do that and you've got to do that all the way down to keep them from getting upset at you before you can ever talk to them about it," Republican Senate President Jimmy Hickey said.

Hutchinson noted he signed the mask mandate ban when the state's cases were much lower and that the Legislature could have easily overridden him had he vetoed the measure.

The Republican sponsor of the mandate ban said he thinks the state needs to focus on other ways to address outbreaks in schools, such as leave for teachers who have to quarantine.

"What I don't want is this false sense of security that masks seem to be providing because it's an easy political tool," said Republican Sen. Trent Garner. "Let's come up with the real solutions when this happens in our schools, and I think we're woefully inadequate on that."

The House and Senate on Friday gave final approval to the only other item on the session's agenda, legislation aimed at preventing the state from resuming supplemental unemployment insurance payments to 69,000 people in the state.

A state judge last week ordered Arkansas to resume the payment, ruling that Hutchinson didn't appear to have the authority on his own to cut off the payments. Hutchinson was among more than two dozen GOP governors who ended their states' participation in the federally funded payments, which were scheduled to run through early September.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
In this July 29, 2021 file photo, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson stands next to a chart displaying COVID-19 hospitalization data as he speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. Andrew DeMillo/AP Photo