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House committee takes no action on mask bill, sponsor to amend it

Special session continues Thursday in Little Rock
Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 4:22 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 4, 2021 at 11:13 PM CDT
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KAIT) - The House Public Health Welfare and Labor Committee took no action Wednesday on a bill dealing with masks, COVID-19 and schools.

The committee discussed HB1003, sponsored by Rep. Julie Mayberry (R-Hensley) and Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould).

Under the bill, masks would be required for students under the age of 12 if the district has an infection rate of 50 per 10,000 residents in the district and the school board votes on and approves the measure.

Mayberry told lawmakers that the requirement, under the bill, would be for no longer than 60 days and that it would give school boards the ability to protect children.

Lawmakers who attended the hearing asked several questions including the use of clean masks by young children, protecting children in a vulnerable situation, postponing the school year until at least Labor Day and leaving a decision in the hands of parents and local districts, instead of lawmakers. Lawmakers said they believed Mayberry’s bill was not workable at this time.

Mayberry said she was willing to work on amendments to get feedback from lawmakers and bring the bill back to committee.

During the meeting, the committee heard from several witnesses including Mayberry and Marion Superintendent Dr. Glen Fenter.

Fenter told lawmakers that as of Tuesday evening, there were 730 people in his district who have been quarantined due to COVID-19.

Fenter said in the meeting that the quarantine numbers jumped from 168 July 30 to 562 on Monday.

Earlier Wednesday, Fenter said he was calling for changes to Act 1002, which prohibits mask mandates.

“I can’t teach our kids if they are quarantined,” Fenter said. “I think it’s important to understand that if our students had been under the same mask mandate that we administered last year—instead of having 730 people quarantined—we would have had 42.”

The committee also heard from several witnesses.

The witnesses said they believed any expansion on the mask mandate issue was government overreach, while several said it was lawmakers’ duty to protect children in a health emergency.

Rep. Monte Hodges (D-Blytheville) says the mandates should be left up to school districts in the best interest of their staff and students.

”I don’t need people telling me what to do in my district when I have the spread of COVID -- if I see a large number of cases of COVID in my district,” said Hodges. “I need my school district in that area to make that decision, and I know they’re going to make the right decision because they don’t want their students to be sick. They want to protect the students-- not only the students but the staff.”

Region 8 News will have more details as they become available.

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