Good evening, Patriot community,
We are writing to share with you the latest updates in what has been a hectic week for our school district. You have probably all seen the news of quarantines, special sessions, lawsuits, and injunctions, and this email is intended to bring you up-to-date with the latest information and answer many of the questions that have been asked.
Through everything that is happening, it is important to note that less than 1.5% of our 4,400 students and staff have tested positive for Covid-19 over the past two weeks. Additionally, more than 5 dozen students (and almost 2 dozen staff) have avoided quarantine by being vaccinated. This tells us that the protocols can work. We believe that if we all follow the guidance of experts, and if we are given the tools to protect students, we can provide an effective education for our students in a safe way.
The latest development came earlier today in the form of a preliminary injunction issued by an Arkansas judge that blocks the enforcement of a state law that denies local districts the authority to enact mask requirements. This was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Marion School District, Little Rock schools, and two Little Rock parents. The ruling is expected to be appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, and it could take several weeks before the matter is resolved. But in the meantime, it appears that local districts again have the power to use this tool to protect their students. We will be spending the coming days visiting with our lawyers to determine what this means for Marion. We will work with our school board to enact a policy that makes sense for our students. We are committed to creating a safe environment for learning.
We will keep you posted as more information becomes available. Until then, please see below for helpful information regarding some of the ongoing questions that many have asked. Also included below is a timeline of events to provide greater clarity of current events.
How serious is the Covid-19 threat at this time?
Very serious. New cases in Arkansas are at their highest levels since last January. The recent rise in cases is largely attributable to the Delta variant, which is much more contagious than the original strain, and far more likely to impact children. Earlier this week, an 11-year-old girl from West Memphis passed away from Covid-19 complications.
Why hasn’t MSD required facemasks?
Act 1002 of the Arkansas General Assembly made it illegal for public schools in Arkansas to require masks in schools. However, a preliminary injunction issued by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox blocked enforcement of the law. The case is expected to end up before the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Did the ban on mask mandates apply to everyone?
No. Private schools and prisons, among a few others, could still require masks.
What action was taken by the Arkansas General Assembly this week regarding mask mandates in schools?
Legislators convened in a special session at the request of Gov. Asa Hutchinson to consider action that would have amended Act 1002 and empowered schools with the ability to enact facemask rules at their discretion. Two separate pieces of legislation were killed in committee votes. The Legislature adjourned today (Friday), having taken no action to protect Arkansas children from Covid-19.
What action has MSD taken this week to gain more tools to protect students?
On Thursday, MSD joined with the Little Rock School District in a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on facemask requirements. Two Little Rock parents also filed suit challenging the law.
Following a hearing on the case Friday morning, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement Act 1002, which prohibited public mask requirements. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge will likely appeal Fox’s ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court, That said, a local board policy requiring masks will likely be valid until either the appeal is complete or until the appeals court enters an order staying Judge Fox’s order pending the appeal.
Why is MSD encouraging masks?
Health experts have consistently advised that consistent and correct mask use is an effective way to stop the spread of Covid-19. On July 27, 2021, the CDC recommended that everyone in areas with high Covid-19 infection rates (including Crittenden County) wear masks in public indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.
Additionally, correct use of facemasks can be a way to avoid quarantine. On July 9, the Arkansas Department of Education issued guidance that individuals exposed to a confirmed case of Covid-19 will not need to be quarantined if they have no symptoms and both the infected and exposed individual consistently and correctly were wearing a mask. Please note: This reflects a change from protocols that were in effect during the last school year.
What is the BEST way to protect yourself against Covid-19, and avoid quarantine?
Vaccination remains the leading public health prevention strategy to end the Covid-19 pandemic, and all eligible students and staff members are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated. Benefits of vaccination include:
- You can protect yourself, friends, family, students, and co-workers from being infected.
- You will not be required to quarantine if you are exposed. This includes both employees (who will be required to use their own leave) and students (who will miss days of instruction).
- MSD employees who provide proof of vaccination by September 7, 2021, are eligible for a one-time stipend of $200
How many MSD students are currently in quarantine?
We do not have a current number. We know that more than 900 quarantines have been ordered, but some of the students/staff included in that number have returned to school. Also, any individual who is quarantined more than once would be counted twice in these figures. The complicated and ongoing process of contact tracing and contacting families makes it difficult to determine how many students/staff we have quarantined at any given time.
Why is Marion not offering a virtual option?
Despite our greatest efforts, we learned last year that virtual education simply does not work for our students. A large percentage of our students reside in single-parent homes, forcing a difficult balancing act for parents who are forced to choose between working and providing the learning support required for their students to succeed virtually. Additionally, an estimated 1 out of 3 of the homes in our district have no access to a reliable internet service, making consistent communication between our faculty and students problematic at best. In short, very few of our students who chose to participate in the virtual option last year achieved an acceptable level of academic progress. We would not be doing our jobs if we continued to perpetuate a learning system that allows so many students to fall behind and slip through the cracks.
We believe that given the tools to do so, including the use of vaccination, facemasks, and social distancing, we can safely educate our students.
Will other school districts see similar infection/quarantine rates as MSD in the coming weeks?
Yes. Assuming other districts follow the same contract-tracing guidelines recommended by the Arkansas Department of Education that we are, we can expect districts across Arkansas to report similar rates of infections and quarantine.
Who is paying attention to this situation?
This issue, and our district, have received widespread media attention over the past week. News outlets who have covered the story included The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, The Arkansas Times, The Associated Press, The Memphis Commercial Appeal, WMC-5 (Memphis), THV-11 (Little Rock), WREG (Memphis), KATV (Little Rock), KHBS (Fort Smith), ABC News, KFSM (Fort Smith/Fayetteville), Fox-13 (Memphis), KAIT (Jonesboro), KARK (Little Rock), the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, the Jonesboro Sun, localmemphis.com, USA Today, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and more.
Where can you get vaccinated?
Vaccines are available locally at several sites, including the Marion Family Pharmacy, Walmart, Kroger, Walgreens, East Arkansas Family Health Canter, and the Arkansas Department of Health.
When are MSD’s next vaccination clinics?
Upcoming clinics are as follows:
- Thursday, August 12, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Patriot Arena
- Thursday, September 2, 12-3 p.m., Patriot Arena
What has been the timeline of events over the past two weeks?
The basic timeline is as follows:
Monday, July 26
- MSD begins schools, the first school district in Arkansas to welcome students back
Friday, July 30
- MSD completes its first week of school. Over the first week, 10 staff and students had positive Covid-19 tests. An additional 25 staff/students avoided quarantine by being vaccinated. However, more than 170 students/staff were quarantined due to exposure to someone who had tested positive.
Monday, August 2
- MSD Covid numbers begin rising sharply. In one day, an additional 18 students/staff tested positive, causing the quarantine of an additional 253. (24 avoided quarantine via vaccination).
Tuesday, August 3
- Marion pleads for help from General Assembly in a letter written by Dr. Fenter. Read the letter here.
Wednesday, August 4
- By midweek the second week of school, Covid numbers continued to soar. Cumulatively, more than 800 quarantines had been ordered. Positive cases topped 50 in total, while more than 75 avoided quarantine by being vaccinated.
- Arkansas General Assembly convenes its special session, called by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Thursday, August 5
- Two different bills that would have allowed schools to require masks killed in committee. The votes against allowing schools to require masks came after lawmakers listened to more than an hour of testimony, much of it citing debunked studies and misinformation. Even when medical experts took the mic to talk about the efficacy of masks in preventing Covid-19, many of the lawmakers on the committee seemed more swayed by science deniers.
- MSD joined with the Little Rock School District in a lawsuit that challenges the law prohibiting mask requirements. Read the lawsuit here.
Friday, August 6
- Legislature adjourns its special session, having taken no action to protect students from Covid-19.
- Following a hearing, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement Act 1002, which prohibits public mask requirements. This likely paves the way for local districts to enact their own facemask requirements. The ruling will likely be appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, but it will probably take several weeks for a final resolution to emerge.