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Bentonville School Board appealing judge's decision on mask mandate

by Dave Perozek | October 13, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
Bentonville School District administration building.

BENTONVILLE -- The School Board is appealing a judge's decision that it doesn't have the authority to mandate the wearing of face masks in school buildings.

Benton County Circuit Judge Xollie Duncan last week granted an injunction to prohibit the School District from enforcing its mask mandate, which had been in effect since the school year started Aug. 16. She issued her ruling in a case where three parents had sued the district.

The district, in a statement released Tuesday, said the board believes the precedent set by Duncan "undermines a school board's authority to keep students safe in a myriad of situations."

The board approved mask mandates for both staff and students 3 and older on Aug. 11 by a 5-2 vote. The policy stated they must wear masks indoors and while riding in school vehicles, with some exceptions.

The board renewed its commitment to that policy Sept. 21 -- again, by a 5-2 vote -- but also agreed Superintendent Debbie Jones may relax the rules if reports of new, known covid-19 infections over a 14-day period drop below 30 per 10,000 district residents. The district's rate recently dropped to 29, down from over 50 three weeks ago, according to the district's website.

Eric White, board president, voted against the mask policy both times but said the board's appeal isn't about masks.

He said board members believe a school board "must be in a position to determine policy and procedures without having those decisions voided any time an individual disagrees."

Board members are elected to act in the best interest of a school district, Jones said.

"This ruling allows a group of parents to challenge any decision simply because it doesn't make sense for their families," Jones said. "The reality is a district must operate with all students in mind."

Matthew Bennett, Elizabeth Bennett and Matt Sitton were listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, originally filed Aug. 18. It named Jones and all seven board members as defendants.

Duncan found the district did not have the authority to issue the mask mandate. She noted neither Gov. Asa Hutchinson nor the secretary of health had issued a mask policy for schools. Both have the authority to issue a policy requiring masks, but the power does not rest with individual school districts, Duncan said.

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