New guidance released Tuesday by the Arkansas departments of health and education are calling for schools throughout the state to maintain as many COVID-19 precautions as possible, including recommendations to strongly consider consistent mask usage in classrooms where children are under age 12 or where the vaccination status of students can't be confirmed.
The new guidance came as the United States Centers for Disease Control issued new masking guidelines that recommended that everyone, including vaccinated persons, wear face masks indoors in parts of the country where the Delta variant of the COVID virus is fueling surges, such as Arkansas, according to the Associated Press.
The CDC also recommended indoor masking for school teachers, students, visitors and other staff across the country, regardless of vaccination status.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said vaccinated people "have the potential to spread that virus to others," and acknowledged that many Americans are weary of the pandemic and do not want to return to prevention measures; however, she said, new scientific information forced the decision to change the guidance again.
The nine-page set of state guidelines for Arkansas schools recommends "implementing layered prevention strategies to protect people who are not fully vaccinated."
Those strategies include appropriate masking; physical distancing; screening and testing for illness; adequate room ventilation; hand-washing; respiratory etiquette; cleaning and disinfection; and staying home when sick.
The guidelines, which acknowledge that mask wearing cannot be mandated under state law, conclude that the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is now the predominant strain in the state and is two to three times more infectious and causes more severe illness than the earlier strain.
"While adolescents over 12 years of age and adults can be protected from the Delta variant by the COVID-19 vaccines, children under 12 remain at high risk. Children represent an increasing proportion of new COVID-19 cases, including hospitalizations and severe disease," the updated guidelines state. "In light of the spread of this more transmissible variant (and potential future strains), ADH and ADE urge schools to maintain as many mitigation measures as possible, or risk increased spread within the school setting."
On Monday, Governor Asa Hutchinson said he planned to talk with legislative leaders about the law that will prohibit public schools and other government entities from requiring people to wear masks when it takes effect today.
Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said Tuesday that he and Senate president pro tempore Jimmy Hickey were part of the meeting with Hutchinson.
"Sen. Hickey and myself met with the governor this afternoon and talked about a number of different issues," Shepherd said. "We talked about what possibilities there might be. ... I think right now what the primary discussion centered around was whether the governor might call a special session."
With the start of the 2021-22 school year for public schools weeks away, some Democratic lawmakers last week called for a legislative session to lift Act 1002's ban on government mask mandates.
Shepherd said for now, he plans to continue reaching out to other members of the Arkansas House of Representatives to determine whether there is a will for a special session to reconsider the ban on mask mandates.
"We're basically going to continue to have conversations," he said. "I think the focus right now is looking in particular at schools and whether there would need to be any changes there."
"I think a discussion on that is helpful and useful at this time," he said.
Their meeting came as the state Department of Health reported more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases across Arkansas, as well as 10 additional deaths caused by the virus. More than 1,000 Arkansans were hospitalized due to the virus and only 39 ICU beds were available in Arkansas on Tuesday.
"Any time you talk about a special session ... we're a body of 100 on our end, plus 35 senators, so we have to look at where the membership is," Shepherd said. "So that's the focus for me is having further discussions with the membership, talking about what their desire is."