The Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education voted Monday night to mandate masks for staff, students and visitors.
The board voted, 4-2, in favor of a 30-day mandate. The superintendent has the power to end if case numbers go below 50 cases per 10,000 residents based on Arkansas Center for Health Improvement data.
Board members Troy Eckelhoff and Susan McFerran voted against the motion.
District parents shared their thoughts on a potential mandate.
Local educator and parent Matthew Graham spoke against a mandate and likened it to a new form of segregation being supported by the U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and the Biden Administration.
Graham referenced the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in voicing opposition to the mandate.
“I hope I could say I would have stood with prophet King in his day if I had been alive,” Graham said. “What about you? Would you stand with prophet King to remove segregation? Or would you stand with a new segregation based on vaccination status, which so clearly violates our 4th Amendments rights?”
Eckelhoff voiced his concerns over moving too quickly with the mandate.
The numbers being reported right now do not reflect the school since students and staff were out on break, Eckelhoff said.
“I think we’re jumping the gun by making a motion or doing something without actually giving ourselves a chance to look at some numbers and have something develop,” Eckelhoff said.
The decision comes during a spike in COVID-19 cases across the state that has broken case records and left some schools pivoting to virtual options for a short period of time.
FSPS reported an all-time high for on-campus cases of 198, with 149 student positives and 49 staff.
The Arkansas Department of Health reported 61,121 active cases across the state on Monday, with 1,545 active cases in Sebastian County and 672 active cases in Crawford County.
If someone wants to wear a mask they can without a mandate, Eckelhoff said.
“I’m not going to be the one to tell a parent their kids have to,” Eckelhoff said.
Board member Dee Blackwell agreed that she does not want to parent other’s children.
“That is not my goal,” Blackwell said. “My goal is to keep schools open and operating as schools.”
Rising case numbers and resulting staff absences could lead to some virtual situations if trends continue, Superintendent Terry Morawski said.
“It’s not unlikely that a school or the district could have to go virtual at some point due to employee absences from being sick or quarantine,” Morawski said.
The district substitute fill rate for Jan. 4-10 is 83%, a drop from the 93% rate from December.
Virtual learning should be a last resort, said board member Dalton Person.
“In order to do the education part, we need kids in school,” Person said. “And to have kids in school if wearing a mask is going to help — then I would support it for a very, very short period of time. This needs to be an emergency; it doesn’t need to be the norm.”
People want their kids in school and they feel like this might give them a fighting chance, Blackwell said.
Parent Leslie Higgins voiced her support of a mask mandate keeping the district from pivoting to virtual is possible.
“In the end, it’s our job as parents, and your job as the school board to keep our kids safe and to keep our kids in school,” Higgins said.
The board voted, 4-3, to end its previous mask mandate on October 11.
Abbi Ross is the business and features reporter at the Southwest Times Record. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @__AbbiRoss