428 students and staff in quarantine after first week of school in Arkansas district

Over 400 students and staff are quarantining for COVID-19 in an Arkansas school district as the superintendent pleads with state lawmakers to reverse a ban on mask mandates.

The Marion School District said 18 students and staff tested positive for the coronavirus Monday, a week after returning to classes, bringing the total in quarantine to 428. Ten people had tested positive during the first week, resulting in 171 quarantines.

“Again, if all students and teachers had been wearing a mask appropriately — then today’s 18 positive cases would be isolated,” the school district said Tuesday. “But there would be no resulting quarantines for anyone else.”

In a letter to state lawmakers, Superintendent Glen Fenter said the district with 4,000 students offered gift certificates, groceries, TVs and other incentives at COVID-19 vaccine clinics with “laudable results” among employees while “our success with our student population remains something akin to abysmal.”

Fenter asked the Legislature to allow school districts “the opportunity to make the decisions that they feel best serve the needs of their students and their communities.”

“If circumstances beyond our control are forcing us to plow new rocky ground, at least let us pick our own mules,” Fenter wrote.

Arkansas state lawmakers passed a law in April banning local government, including school districts, from implementing mask mandates.

Texas, Florida and South Carolina are among states that have taken similar actions to deter mask mandates, while Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt is suing leaders in Kansas City and St. Louis for reinstating mask mandates.

Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has expressed regret for signing the mask mandate ban into law.

“I signed it at the time because our cases were at a very low point, I knew that it would be overridden by the Legislature if I didn’t sign it, and I had already eliminated our statewide mask mandate,” Hutchinson said during a Tuesday news conference. “Everything has changed now. Yes, in hindsight, I wish that had not become law.”

On Monday, Arkansas reported the highest daily increase in hospitalizations for coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic.

State lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Wednesday for an “extraordinary” session called by Hutchinson, who wants to slightly change the mask mandate ban. The governor’s proposal would allow school boards the option to require masks for children younger than 12.

“Under CDC guidelines, students 11 and younger cannot receive the COVID vaccine, and without it, they are at a greater risk of contracting the virus, particularly the Delta variant,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “COVID‐19 impact is escalating among children, particularly those 12 and older, as we have seen in the increased number and severity of COVID‐19 cases at Arkansas Children’s during July.”

Meanwhile on Wednesday, Marion School District was hosting another vaccine clinic open to anyone in the community across the Mississippi River from Memphis.

“While we continue to diligently encourage vaccinations and voluntary masking, it is clear that we are, as many others will soon be, fighting a battle that we are not appropriately equipped to win, a battle that if lost could well lead (to) mandated school closings and the subsequent economic upheaval we all witnessed during the previous wave of the pandemic,” Fenter said in the letter to state lawmakers.

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