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The Disastrous Opening of One Arkansas School District

When schools in Marion, Ark., opened, the district was prohibited from requiring masks. Here’s what their experience can teach the rest of the country.

By week three of the school year in Marion, Ark., the district had counted 1,461 student quarantines and 27 staff quarantines. One hundred and twenty-three students and 14 staff members had tested positive for Covid-19 in the district, which is just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn. It was August 13.

Five days later, on Monday, August 18, Dan Mouritsen, who teaches at Marion High School, tested positive for Covid-19. The fully vaccinated 65-year-old math teacher and robotics coach answered my call from an ER bed at Baptist Memorial Hospital in West Memphis, Ark., where he was being treated for a bad reaction to an infusion meant to treat his symptoms. He is all but certain he got the disease from one of his students.

“We should never have started school without masks,” he said. “I have cafeteria duty in the morning with 250 kids, so here I am 65 years old, type 2 diabetic, high risk, and these kids aren’t wearing masks. It gets kind of dangerous.” Mouritsen’s health risk is further heightened by brain surgery he had to remove a tumor three decades ago.

Marion was one of the first school districts in the country to open on July 26. At the time, Arkansas public schools (but not their private counterparts) were prevented from mandating masks by Act 1002, a law passed in the spring by the state’s ultraconservative legislature. Students, many still too young to be vaccinated, returned to the classroom just as the Delta variant spread and Arkansas’s infection rate skyrocketed. Only 9 percent of children under 18 in Arkansas are fully vaccinated, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Marion’s experience was a harbinger of what was to come for school districts nationwide, especially in places where universal masking or vaccine requirements are politically—or legally—impossible. Seven other states ban schools from mandating masks, and districts from Mississippi to Oklahoma to Texas have shut down because of high Covid-19 rates. In Mississippi, at least six children have died from Covid-19 during the pandemic. In Georgia, 2,000 children a day are testing positive for the virus. And Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed an executive order prohibiting vaccine mandates.

In the first week of August, just over a week after their first day of school. Marion joined the Little Rock school district to sue the state of Arkansas over Act 1002. A judge placed a temporary injunction on Arkansas’s ban just before most of the rest of the state’s school districts opened on August 16. The law is still awaiting a final decision in court.

The inability to require masks in school was disastrous for the start of Marion’s school year. Like other states, Arkansas requires schools to quarantine anyone who comes within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or longer over the course of 24 hours—quarantines that could be avoided if everyone were masked.

“In math, if you’re not there—because of the way that class is structured—if you miss something you’re lost for nine weeks,” said Mouritsen. He’s been uploading videos so students can stay caught up despite quarantine. But district-wide, there’s no formal virtual schooling option.

During the first three weeks of school in Marion, some educators saw a third or more of their classrooms vanish for up to two weeks of quarantine. “Like a house on fire, the Covid quarantine numbers took off,” Mouritsen said. He estimates that 40 to 50 of his students were quarantined at some point, including 10 in a single class. “In an average year, you might have a couple of absences in a day. Some teachers had 40% of their students missing,” another teacher in the district who asked to remain anonymous told me via Facebook Messenger. “That’s unbearable.” Marion’s school board voted unanimously for a mask mandate within three days of the temporary injunction blocking the state law. Fenter expects that mandatory masking will cause quarantines—though not necessarily cases—to plummet.

Keeping kids and teachers physically in school is a top priority for districts like Marion and others in rural Arkansas, where broadband access doesn’t always meet FCC standards and can make virtual schooling a difficult option to implement.

But even masks don’t make classrooms entirely safe for students or teachers—especially in districts with low vaccination rates and in schools where social distancing is difficult and air filtration systems are insufficient or in poor condition. “It’s part of the picture, but I don’t think, frankly, it’s enough,” said Mark Williams, the dean of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The most recent UAMS models predict that nearly 11,000 more Arkansas children will get Covid-19 by the end of August.

“If I were given the authority, which I suppose certain people are very glad that I haven’t been, I would mandate vaccinations for all school staff, teachers, and those students who can be vaccinated,” he said. “Otherwise, we are just in essence playing Russian roulette with children’s lives.” Williams also said that circulating fresh air from the outdoors and social distancing up to 10 feet where possible could help slow the virus’s inevitable spread through in-person classrooms.

“The Delta variant is far more infectious than the previous variants that were circulating in the state, and it does seem to have an impact on young adults and children to a much greater extent than previous variants,” Williams said. “There is a higher proportion of children that are infected who are manifesting serious disease and hospitalization.” Arkansas’s pediatric Covid ICU units are already strained, and Williams said that it’s much more difficult to expand pediatric Covid ICU capacity than adult ICU capacity. “Creating new beds will be demanding, and it will cost a great deal in terms of resources,” he said.

On July 26, the day school started in Marion, there were 18 new known infections per 10,000 residents among those who lived within the school district’s boundaries. By August 9, that number was 75. On August 16, it was 104. The rate has subsided slightly since then, to 98, but Marion remains one of 140 Arkansas school districts that currently have rates of 50 or more new infections per 10,000. Sixteen of those 140 districts have 100 or more new infections per 10,000.

In Marion, just 26 percent of all residents in the school district’s boundaries are vaccinated. And so, Superintendent Glen Fenter said that he and other decision-makers in the district saw the problem coming. If the state legislature hadn’t prohibited them from doing so, he said, “I am confident the [school] board would have seen the wisdom in starting classes the first day in masks.”

Since the court’s injunction, only about half of Arkansas school districts have required students and teachers to wear masks. After successfully implementing a mask mandate in Marion, Fenter says he’s spoken to other superintendents trying to figure out how to convince their school boards to implement them.

“Some of them actually believe that they have every chance of being either run out of town on a rail or terminated or shot or all of the above,” he said. “My advice to them has been to strongly recommend masks, to take great pains to propagate the information that’s available to them regarding the safety of their students and what an important role masks play. But the fastest way to change the sentiment of their communities is to simply let them experience the results of not having masks—because I can assure you it changed the tenor in our community over a two-week period dramatically.”

E-mails obtained via a public records request to the Arkansas Department of Education show administrators and board members requesting written guidance from the state on when mask mandates should be implemented, some frustrated with the predicament they faced trying to keep kids in school while dealing with parents and staff who are averse to mask-wearing, let alone vaccines.

Tracy Streeter, the superintendent of Hamburg, a rural district in southeastern Arkansas, wrote to ADE after her school board split 3-3 down the middle on whether to require masks. A survey she shared with the department showed the results of a survey of 448 community members and 126 staff—58.7 percent of staff against a mask mandate for staff, 56.3 percent of staff against a mask mandate for students, and 62.1 percent of community members against their children wearing a mask in school.

“The only way I can educate students is to have them on campus. I focused with my board on the fact that a mass quarantine would hinder all of this. It would be a nightmare,” Streeter wrote. She added that the district offers a $200 incentive for vaccination, emergency Covid leave, and is hosting its second vaccination clinic. “I know there are more and more coming around and getting the vaccine.… I feel like I am lacking in solid data and I am really battling the division of the community.”

School districts throughout Arkansas are also still dealing with misinformation about Covid-19 and the vaccine—not just among parents and teachers but also among students. “There are schools with good leaders; there are schools with well-meaning school boards. They simply can’t get their communities on board with this,” Fenter said. “You’ve got people who believe they have an individual right to make individual choices, but they still want to operate as if they’re in a vacuum, even though their choice may have great negative consequences for others.”

At Marion High School, students are eligible to be vaccinated, but most are not. “I’ve had students tell me they’re not going to get the vaccine because they’re putting chips in people’s body so they can keep track of them,” Mouritsen said. “There are social media posts that some kids believe that if they get the vaccine, they’re eventually going to turn into a zombie.”

And it’s not just the vaccine: Many students are also still averse to wearing masks. “I had one student stare me in the face and say, ‘My body, my choice,’” Mouritsen said. “Your choice will affect me. If you’re Covid-positive and you’re going to walk around this building without a mask on, and you talk near me, I’m going to contract the Covid virus. Are you sure you want that on your shoulders?”

Mouritsen’s worst fears were realized when he tested positive. But he’s planning to be back in the classroom on Monday, after his state-mandated quarantine period is over. He credits the vaccine for keeping the worst symptoms of Covid-19 at bay.

The pandemic hasn’t made him consider quitting, he said. Before he was a math and robotics teacher, he spent 11 years as an engineer. He saw young people coming into the field who had not mastered basic mathematical concepts, he said. After successful experimental surgery for a brain tumor 30 years ago, he felt a new calling.

“I made a decision after I had my brain surgery that I was going to teach, and I was going to make sure these kids learn what they needed to learn,” he said. “God left me on this planet for a reason, and teaching these young men and women—that’s what it’s about.”

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