When Marion School District students and staff return from Spring Break next month, they may have the choice of attending school with or without facemasks.

Marion Superintendent Dr. Glen Fenter plans to propose the change to the district’s Covid-19 policy during a meeting of the Marion School Board on March 10.

The district started the school year on July 26 with no ability to require masks under state law. By the second week of the school year, more than 1,000 students had been forced into quarantine. At that point, the district joined a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on mask mandates. In response to that lawsuit, Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued an injunction on the mask ban, paving the way for Marion and districts across the state to implement masking rules. The Marion School District implemented its mask mandate on August 11. 

The impact of the mask mandate was major. Both positive cases and quarantines for students and staff dropped dramatically in the weeks that followed.

“Without our mask mandate, I don’t know that we would have been able to have had a school year this year,” said Fenter. “The results speak for themselves – we went from having more than a thousand kids in quarantine at the start of the school year, to just a few dozen a few weeks later following the implementation of the mask requirement. By October, the positive cases and quarantines slowed to a trickle. We know that kids learn best when they are in school, in a classroom, and being led by one of our great teachers. Our mask mandate is what kept kids in school.”

Like most of the country, the district also saw a large spike in Covid-19 cases in January, with the arrival of the Omicron wave. While positive cases had soared into the hundreds in the early weeks following the holiday break, cases have again slowed significantly. During the week of February 14-18, the district recorded its fewest number of student quarantines in any week since the start of the school year.

“For the past couple of weeks, fewer and fewer staff and students have been in isolation or quarantine,” Fenter said. “Additionally, vaccines are now available to every single student in our schools. We think this puts us in a position to propose updating our masking rules. However, there is nothing more important than providing every opportunity for our students and staff to be safe, so we will be watching our numbers closely in the coming weeks and months ahead as we move forward with the new policy.”

Under the policy the board will consider on March 10, masks will remain highly recommended but parents and their students, as well as our staff, will have the choice of whether or not to wear masks starting Monday, March 28.

The district will reserve the option to bring back appropriate mask requirements if the district’s isolation/quarantine numbers top 5 percent of the district’s student/staff population. Currently, the district’s isolation/quarantine numbers are less than 1 percent. Additionally, the district will continue to follow the Arkansas Department of Health mandate that individuals who have tested positive and are returning after 5 days of isolation will be required to wear a mask on days 6-10 in order to return to campus.

The district plans to continue its other Covid mitigation strategies, including physical distancing when possible, daily disinfection of surfaces, keeping those who are ill at home, proper ventilation, and most of all, encouraging vaccinations.

“We want to recognize the importance of our board, staff, students, parents, and the Patriot community for their work in keeping our schools safe,” Fenter said. “Obviously, this has been a challenging situation for everyone for almost two years. We pray that we continue to identify additional paths back to normalcy.”