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El Dorado schools now recommending masks instead of requiring

District mandate lifted in unanimous vote; decision to be reviewed regularly by Caitlan Butler | November 17, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.
El Dorado School Board members flank Superintendent Jim Tucker in this News-Times file photo from a specially-called school board meeting on Aug. 16, 2021.

The El Dorado School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to lift the district's mask mandate immediately, opting instead to recommend masks for all students.

On Aug. 16, the school board voted 4-3 to require universal masking for students, staff, faculty and visitors on all ESD campuses. The El Dorado School District's 2021/2022 Ready for Learning plan -- the district's policy manual for COVID-19 protocols this school year -- called for all students and staff to wear masks in common areas, during class transitions, on buses and in classrooms when social distancing wasn't possible.

Students were permitted take their masks off when outside or when eating or drinking in the cafeteria.

On Tuesday, a specially-called school board meeting was held; ESD Superintendent Jim Tucker cited low COVID case numbers locally, a low positivity rate in Union County and a low level of virus spread within the district as reasons for the meeting.

"Back on August 16, we said we would look at the positivity rate, and it was said at the last board meeting we would look at the positivity rate," Tucker said, referring to the Nov. 8 regular school board meeting. "The positivity rate is low, the numbers in the district are low, so we'll give it a try ... and hope that the numbers will remain low."

As of today, students, staff, faculty and visitors will no longer be required to wear masks on ESD campuses, though they are still recommended.

"You can still wear a mask. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. I definitely recommend it; it's just not required," Tucker said.

The school board also empowered Tucker to make changes to the district's masking policy should the local positivity rate rise above 8%.

"We feel good about where we're at and if we start going back up, we know that wearing a mask, in part, helped," he said.

According to data provided by the school district, there were no ESD staff members in quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19 on Tuesday. Ten students were in quarantine, including six in isolation.

Students and staff exposed to the virus and asked to stay home are considered quarantined, while those who contract the virus and are asked to stay home are considered to be isolation.

Taylon Steele, a spokesperson for the district, said the ESD is tracking the seven-day positivity rate in Union County using the United States Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) COVID data tracker.

According to the CDC, the local positivity rate from Sunday, Nov. 7, through Saturday, Nov. 13, is 4.78%. Community spread in Union County is considered to be "substantial," the CDC says, and everyone in the county "should wear a mask in public, indoor settings."

"I think it's the right decision. I think it's what we need to try right now," Tucker said. "If there seems to be a change for the worse, we'll do what we need to do to make children safe."

Tuesday's decision was made after several parents filed suit against the district over its mask mandate.

Attorneys representing parents Luke Baston, Clifford O. Wilson III, Jamie Wilson and Karen Lynn Dunn allege in the suit that the mask mandate was imposed illegally, and that it violated the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993.

Tucker said the suit played no part in the decision to call a special school board meeting Tuesday or to lift the mask requirement.

"That lawsuit has zero bearing on the decision that was made today," he said. "We said that (we'd review the mandate) back on August 16, and there was no lawsuit then, and we said it at the last board meeting."

The News-Times reached out to the Story Law Firm, which is representing the parents in the suit against the school district, but did not hear back by press-time Tuesday.

Tucker said that regardless of what happens with the suit, he intends to do what he can to keep children in the district safe.

"Whether (the school board's decision) will or won't (affect the lawsuit) isn't a concern of mine," he said. "Doing what's best for our children is what's a concern of mine."

Tucker said on Tuesday that it was yet to be seen how many students will continue masking during the school day.

"I think we will have some. I don't know if the number will be significant; I think it probably will be, but we won't know until (Wednesday), or the next day or even after we come back from Thanksgiving break," he said. "It's hard to guess what students and children are going to do."


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