Bentonville School Board passes mask mandate amid public protest

People chant "my child, my choice" Wednesday outside a Bentonville School Board special meeting concerning wearing masks in schools. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Mary Jordan)
People chant "my child, my choice" Wednesday outside a Bentonville School Board special meeting concerning wearing masks in schools. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Mary Jordan)

BENTONVILLE -- The School Board on Wednesday approved requiring the wearing of masks indoors and on buses for staff and students 3 and older, regardless of vaccination status.

The board voted 5-2 in support of the measure.

Brent Leas, secretary, and Eric White, board president, voted against the measure.

"My job as a board member is to create a safe environment for kids to learn and to get a great education in the Bentonville School District," said Willie Cowgur, board member. "If we're able to keep kids in school by wearing masks, I'm for it."

People began gathering outside the district administrative building on Tiger Boulevard about 4 p.m., prior to the 5:30 p.m. meeting, administrators said. Many of those gathered held signs promoting the freedom of choice for wearing masks and were chanting "my child, my choice."

The board limited comments to 25 people in favor of wearing masks in schools and 25 against the policy during the meeting. Participants had the opportunity to address the board for one minute each prior to the board's decision.

Susan Sullivan, a pediatrician with five children, spoke in favor of wearing masks.

"Children have died in our state from covid," Sullivan said. "It's the district's responsibility to keep children safe."

Whereas Mike Swanson, who's running against Joe Quinn for the Zone 7 seat on the board, spoke out against masks.

"I'm against stripping parents of the right to raise their kids the way they see fit," Swanson said.

Zone 7 covers southwest Bentonville and parts of Centerton, Rogers, Highfill and Cave Springs. Swanson has three children attending Bentonville schools.

A Pulaski County Circuit Court judge on Friday ruled a state law banning mask mandates for public institutions, including school districts, universities, cities and counties, was unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction against it. The law isn't in effect at the moment, prompting mask discussions throughout the state.

The mask policy may allow the district to reduce the number of covid-19 quarantines students experience this school year, said Debbie Jones, superintendent.

Centers for Disease Control guidance recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools to mitigate the spread of the covid-19 virus, regardless of vaccination status, Jones said. The American Academy of Pediatrics likewise recommends all students older than 2 and all school staff should wear face masks at school, unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use.

Individuals exposed to a confirmed case of covid-19 won't need to quarantine if they have no symptoms and both the infected and the exposed person consistently and correctly wear a mask, said Joel Tumilson with the Arkansas Department of Health, who attended the meeting remotely.

Students who refuse to wear a mask at school or at school functions under the emergency policy will be subject to discipline consistent with district policy and exclusion from on-site instruction, according to supporting board documents.

The School Board will reevaluate the mask policy monthly at its regularly scheduled board meeting beginning Sept. 21, administrators said.

The board likewise voted 5-2 in support of staff wearing masks indoors and on buses.

White and Leas voted against the measure.

In other news, the School Board unanimously voted to approve 10 additional days of paid leave to licensed and classified personnel in response to the pandemic.

The leave will be available if an employee is recommended to quarantine because of exposure to covid-19, an employee tests positive for the virus, an employee has symptoms of covid-19 and is seeking a medical diagnosis, an employee is caring for an individual who’s recommended to quarantine because of exposure to the virus, an employee is caring for a person whose school or place of care is closed or if child care is unavailable because of covid-19, according to the policy.

An employee who receives covid-19 emergency leave will be paid the their full daily rate of pay for up to 10 days, according to the policy. The 10 days of covid-19 leave will be applied before other forms of district-provided paid leave are used, including sick leave and personal leave.

An employee’s eligibility to receive paid leave under this policy expires June 30, according to the policy.

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Safe Schools Plan

Bentonville School District’s back-to-school safety plan is available at https://drive.googl…">https://drive.googl….

Source: Bentonville Public Schools

This story has been updated with the decision concerning staff wearing masks indoors and on buses. It was originally published at 7:16 a.m.