Gov. requests legislative action on COVID-19, unemployment

In this screenshot taken during Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s news conference this week, he explains his request to legislators to allow school districts to set mask mandates for children under 12.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called an Extraordinary Session for Wednesday to create an exception to Act 1002, that will give public school boards flexibility to protect school children age 11 and younger, who are not eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Act 1002 prohibits state and local government, including school boards, from requiring people to wear a mask.

During a news conference Tuesday, Hutchinson pointed out that under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, students 11 and younger cannot receive the COVID vaccine, and without it, they are at a greater risk of contracting the virus, particularly the Delta variant.

“They are required to go to school,” Hutchinson said.

“COVID‐19 impact is escalating among children, particularly those 12 and older, as we have seen in the increased number and severity of COVID‐19 cases at Arkansas Children’s during July,” Hutchinson also said in a statement issued Tuesday. “Last week, Children’s daily census of 24 COVID-19 patients was a 50 percent increase over previous peaks. Because of this increased risk of illness in children, we see the necessity of allowing leaders in school districts the flexibility to decide whether students wear masks. We must allow local school boards to make the best decision for the students in their schools.”

If nothing changes, Hutchinson said parents can still encourage mask wearing and following CDC guidelines.

“I understand that some legislators are reluctant to allow school boards this freedom, even in this limited way,” Hutchinson said in his prepared statement. “But the exceptions for which I am asking are true to the conservative principle that puts control in the hands of local government. Some argue it should be up to the parents to decide for the children. For that reason, school boards will have many options after listening to the parents. The goal is to be safe and to keep schools open. Local flexibility will help get us there. I am asking lawmakers to simply allow public school boards and open enrollment charter schools to make their own decision to implement masking protocols to protect children younger than 12 in a school building, school bus, or other educational setting where several students are in close proximity.”

Last week seven children were in Arkansas Children’s ICU, and four were on ventilators, according to Hutchinson’s office. The average length of stay and the number of days on a ventilator have doubled for COVID‐19 patients during July compared to January.

Arkansas’ virus cases reported 2,343 new coronavirus cases and 16 more COVID-19 deaths. The state’s hospitalizations grew by 30 to 1,250, approaching the high it set in January of 1,371.

Hutchinson also is asking members of the General Assembly to affirm the decision of the director of Workforce Services to terminate Arkansas’s participation in extraordinary federal unemployment benefit and relief programs related to COVID-19.

This measure is aimed at addressing a judge’s ruling last week ordering Arkansas to resume supplemental unemployment insurance payments to 69,000 people. Hutchinson in May ordered the state’s Division of Workforce Services to end the state’s participation in the program after June 26. The federally funded additional benefits were scheduled to run through early September.

A judge on Thursday said state law indicated ending the payments was a decision for the Legislature to make, not Hutchinson. The state has asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to stay the judge’s decision.

“It is more important that we reduce the number of unemployed and put more people to work than it is for the state to accept any federal relief programs related to unemployment,” Hutchinson said. “I will ask legislators to affirm that the director of Workforce Services may exercise discretion in her decisions to participate in or to cease participation in any voluntary, optional, special, or emergency program that the federal government offers.”

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