Little Rock schools chief seeks suit over Arkansas mask mandate ban

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson stands next to a chart displaying COVID-19 hospitalization data as...
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson stands next to a chart displaying COVID-19 hospitalization data as he speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, July 29, 2021. Hutchinson announced he was calling a special session to take up a proposal to lift the state’s ban on face mask mandates in public schools. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)(Andrew DeMillo | AP)
Published: Jul. 31, 2021 at 2:24 PM CDT
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The superintendent of Little Rock’s schools on Friday called for suing to overturn Arkansas’ ban on mask mandates, saying he wasn’t confident legislators would allow local school boards to impose their own requirements.

Superintendent Mike Poore said he’ll ask the Little Rock School Board to challenge the state law prohibiting state and local government entities from requiring masks. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who signed the ban in April, said Thursday he’ll call the majority-GOP Legislature back into session next week to lift the ban for K-12 public schools.

Hutchinson and legislative leaders have said they face an uphill battle in changing the law, especially since it would need two-thirds support in the House and Senate to take effect before school begins.

“I’m not confident that will occur,” Poore said in a YouTube video released by the district. “This lawsuit allows us a place in order to take this situation to the judicial branch and act on (the ban).”

If approved, Little Rock’s lawsuit would be among at least two expected in the coming weeks challenging Arkansas’ ban as the school year approaches. A group of parents is also expected to file a lawsuit challenging the ban’s constitutionality.

Arkansas reported more than 2,500 new coronavirus cases on Friday, and its hospitalizations grew by 32 to 1,087. The state reported COVID-19 deaths grew by 13 to 6,123.

Arkansas ranks second in the country for new cases per capita, according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers.

Hutchinson defended his call for changing the law during a contentious town hall in Siloam Springs that’s part of a statewide tour he’s conducting in the hopes of increasing the state’s low vaccination rate. Only 36% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.

Hutchinson said his proposal is “simply to give authority to the local school board, government closest to the people, to make the decision.” Hutchinson has said he’s not proposing lifting the rest of the mask mandate ban and does not plan to issue another statewide mask requirement.

“That’s an option to the school districts. It is not a mandate to the school districts,” he said.

Audience members, mostly unmasked, regularly shouted at and interrupted Hutchinson and the state’s top health official at the forum as they tried to dispel false information about vaccinations. One audience member accused officials of manipulating data about hospitalizations, while another woman falsely suggested the vaccine had been created before COVID-19 had emerged.

“What came first: COVID or the vaccine?” she asked. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were made using a new technology that harnesses genetic code called messenger RNA but the specific instructions needed to create a vaccine against COVID-19 weren’t known until the new coronavirus emerged.

Legislative leaders announced the Legislature will meet on Tuesday to review Hutchinson’s decision to declare a new state of emergency for the state’s latest virus surge. The emergency declaration will continue unless both the House and Senate vote to end it. Hutchinson issued the declaration Thursday, two months after he lifted the original state of emergency issued early on in the pandemic.

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