An Arkansas judge temporarily blocked the enforcement of the state’s law banning mask mandates in schools on Friday in response to lawsuits filed by a school district and parents who want schools to be able to require masks if they choose to.
The preliminary injunction was issued by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox after the state’s General Assembly held a special session on the matter on Thursday without amending the law.
With the injunction in place, school districts can now enforce mask requirements, while the suits continue.
The law “cannot be enforced in any shape, fashion or form,” Fox said during Friday’s hearing.
With Covid-19 cases surging across the country, fueled by the dangerous Delta variant, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson called on the legislature earlier this week to amend the law that he signed in April, indicating that in hindsight, he wished he had not signed it.
“The local school districts should make the call,” Hutchinson said Wednesday. “And they should have more options to make sure that their school is a safe environment during a very challenging time for education.”
In a statement to CNN on Friday, the governor said the judge’s decision ended with the result he intended.
“While the Arkansas General Assembly did not amend Act 1002, my objective has been achieved by the court’s decision today of Judge Fox who ruled that Act 1002 is unconstitutional,” Hutchinson said. “This ruling provides flexibility for school districts to make decisions on how to best protect their students.”
Officials from the Marion School District filed one of the suits. The district has more than 900 students and a dozen staff members in quarantine due to positive Covid-19 cases during the first two weeks of school.
Forty-seven students and eight staff members tested positive for Covid-19 this week alone, causing the jump in students needing to be quarantined. An additional 54 students and five staff members were able to avoid quarantine because they are vaccinated.
The district had not been able to put a mask requirement in place due to the April law. District officials said that if a mask mandate was in place, the number of students in quarantine would be drastically lower.
Marion School District Superintendent Glen Fenter said in a statement to CNN that the district is “pleased” with the judge’s ruling.
“When it comes to students wearing facemasks, we believe that local boards, who are closest to the situation, are in the best position to determine whether or not facemask requirements are appropriate,” Fenter said.
The district is now considering how best to move forward, Fenter said.
“We will be spending the coming days visiting with our lawyers and exploring what the best option will be for students in the Marion School District. We will work with our school board to enact a suitable policy.”