LITTLE ROCK (KATV) — The first day of school for most districts is Monday in Arkansas. But several students in athletics and extracurriculars are already back practicing, and the districts are still waiting for new recommendations.
Last week, an Arkansas judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing its ban on mask mandates after lawmakers left the prohibition in place despite a rising number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued a preliminary injunction against Act 1002, a law that bans mask requirements in public schools.
Fox ruled the law violates the Arkansas Constitution by discriminating between public and private school students. He also said it infringes on the governor’s emergency powers, the authority of county officials, and the state Supreme Court.
Several schools have taken advantage of the ruling, including the Pulaski County Special School District, which voted to require masks indoors for all students, staff, and guests through October.
PCSSD passed the requirement during a board meeting Tuesday, but as far as athletics go, some decisions are yet to be made.
"The Arkansas Activities Association, going through their COVID-19 guidelines, those have not been updated since April," said board member Alicia Gillen. "We are setting a precedence here of how we’re going to handle a classroom environment, but there’s not been any discussion of how we’re going to be handling an athlete or any of the extracurricular environments."
Superintendent Dr. Charles McNulty said the district did well when it came to outdoor activities last year. For indoor activities, he said players wore masks until they got onto the court, which seemed to work well, but should be taken another look at.
"We’re going to have to work with AAA to see how we can support that," McNulty said. "I think we all will have concerns with the basketball when it comes up, depending on where we are, and the Delta variant," McNulty said.
The Arkansas Activities Association follows Team Sports Guidance from the Arkansas Department of Health, whose recommendations haven't changed since April 2021.
The ADH recommends social distancing when possible, required testing, encouraging vaccinations, health screenings, and regular temperature checks. Their mask policy, however, was changed from a directive to guidance on April 1, 2021, meaning masks are not required.
"The only guidance that we update is what was given to us from the department of health, we do not create the guidance, because they are the experts in our state," Dr. Joey Walters, AAA's liaison for sports medicine said. "It will stay a recommendation unless the department of health in the state makes it a mandate."
The ADH guidance for masks for outdoor sports recommends they are worn when not actively participating, and when there is not ample space to maintain six feet of physicals distancing. They recommend they are worn at all times, except when inhibitory while participating.
The ADH guidance for masks for indoor sports recommends they are worn at all times, except when the face covering is inhibitory while actively playing. Coaches and staff should wear masks when physical distancing cannot be assured.
KATV reached out to the ADH to see if there would be any changes made. A spokesperson said they will not be updating athletics guidance, and masks will stay a recommendation this year.
Walters said it's up to the individual districts to decide what's best. If anything changes, he said AAA will update schools and their website with the newest information.
"Stay safe and everything will be a local decision and determine what's best for you and your school district, and we'll continue to follow the guidance of the department of health," Walters said.
AAA updated the latest guidance from the ADH on isolation and quarantine back in July. Walters said they highly encourage screenings, vaccinations, and social distancing.
"Last year you know, we were one of the few states able to start and finish the seasons, because we believe that activities and athletics are so important to student's wellbeing and mental attitude, sense of normalcy, and being around their friends and extracurricular activities play a large part in the student's experience in school."