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A Judge Has Blocked An Attempt In Arkansas To Ban Mask Mandates In Schools

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As COVID cases surged in Arkansas this week, the state became the scene of yet another political debate over mask mandates in schools with the governor, the Legislature and court system all weighing in. Sarah Kellogg from member station KUAR in Little Rock reports.

SARAH KELLOGG, BYLINE: Back in April, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a bill into law that banned public entities like cities, schools and government agencies from issuing mask mandates. At that time, daily COVID-19 infections were relatively low, and he had already lifted the statewide mask mandate. But now Arkansas' COVID cases are among the highest per capita in the country. And on Tuesday, Hutchinson said he regrets the move.

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ASA HUTCHINSON: In hindsight, I wish that had not become law. But it is the law.

KELLOGG: Hutchinson, a Republican, asked the Republican-led Legislature to convene a special session this week in part to consider amending the ban. The governor said he wasn't in favor of lifting the ban entirely but wanted to allow schools to be able to issue mask mandates. In that session, members of the public, many of them parents, voiced fierce opinions on both sides of the issue. Individual freedom for parents was a frequently cited reason among those who didn't want the law to change, like Dallas Green.

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DALLAS GREEN: This is not letting the individual decide. And for Republicans to run this bill, it goes against the party platform.

KELLOGG: Those who were in favor of changing the law also spoke on individual freedoms, but for local school districts. For parent Sonia Fonticiella, she says she fears for her children's health, who are set to begin school in the coming weeks.

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SONIA FONTICIELLA: I've reached out to my local school board to express my concerns, but their hands are tied right now.

KELLOGG: Only two bills amending the mask mandate ban were even brought up for discussion by a House committee. Neither made it past that first step. In that committee, lawmakers expressed concern about the rising number of cases. But some, including Republican Representative Aaron Pilkington, did not think removing the mask mandate ban was the solution.

AARON PILKINGTON: I like to trust the people of Arkansas to do the right thing, and I think we should give them time to make the right decisions. But that's my opinion, and I'll be voting no on this 'cause I don't think this is the right answer at this moment.

KELLOGG: While the Legislature gaveled out Friday without changing the law, only hours later, a change did happen when an Arkansas judge issued a preliminary injunction temporarily blocking the mask mandate ban from going into effect until a trial can occur. That means, for now, Arkansas schools are now able to require face masks.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Kellogg in Little Rock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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