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Arkansas judge strikes down ban on school mask mandates, governor applauds decision

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The statewide ban on school mask mandates in Arkansas was struck down by a judge Wednesday in a ruling welcomed by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled that the law Hutchinson signed in April was unconstitutional on multiple grounds, the Associated Press reported. Fox said the state government's prohibition on schools and local government authorities from implementing masking requirements unlawfully discriminates between children in public and private schools. Private schools were not impacted by the mandate, which applied only to governmental bodies.

After Fox blocked the ban from taking effect in August, more than 100 public and charter schools and school districts in Arkansas imposed mask mandates.

Hutchinson said he was pleased with the judge's decision.

"The ruling that Act 1002 is unconstitutional serves as a restraint against the legislative branch and helps reset the correct balance between the branches of government," the governor said in a statement.

"The ruling also makes it clear that local school boards have the authority to protect the health of students during this pandemic. I am in favor of schools and local governments having the authority to keep students and their constituents safe as we see another surge in Covid-19 cases," he said.

The governor said in August that he regretted signing the ban on mask mandates into law and hoped that courts would find it unconstitutional. He excused his previous support for the law at the time by saying he though the Republican-controlled state legislature would override his veto.

Amid a statewide surge in coronavirus cases caused by the Delta variant, Hutchinson had asked the legislature to hold a special session to repeal the mask mandate ban, but he was vigorously opposed by Republican lawmakers.

Now, the state is experiencing another surge in COVID-19 cases, the highest reported number of cases since last summer.

The Arkansas Department of Health on Tuesday reported 1,626 new active cases, the largest one-day increase since Sept. 17 when there were 1,809 new cases, according to KARK-TV.

The health department reported 11,716 total active cases, the largest number since Sept. 26 when there were 12,494 cases reported.

Data shows that 67.2% of those infected are not fully vaccinated.

“There’s an upward trajectory in new cases with more than 2,400 and 51 new hospitalizations,” Hutchinson said Tuesday. “Our positivity rate is up and our vaccinations were lackluster yesterday. With Omicron on the rise we have to prepare for a rough January. I will talk about new CDC guidelines Thursday.”

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