The Smackover-Norphlet School Board voted unanimously to begin requiring masks for students and staff starting on Wednesday.
During a specially-called meeting Tuesday evening, school board members noted that 125 to 130 students -- about 11.5% of the district's student population -- are currently in quarantine due to COVID exposures.
Norphlet Middle School had 23% of its student body in quarantine on Tuesday, according to statistics given by superintendent Jason Black during the meeting.
According to the Arkansas Department of Health, as of Monday, 17 COVID-19 cases had been identified in the district, including 11 that were active that day.
The mask mandate will be reviewed at each regular school board meeting, starting with the regular September meeting.
The board previously met on Monday, August 30, for a specially-called meeting, where Black informed school board members of the district's COVID-19 statistics, which at that time included 109 students -- almost 10% of the student body -- in quarantine.
Black and board members raised the possibly of a mask mandate during the August 30 meeting, focusing on the district's obligation to follow state requirements concerning quarantine for those exposed to COVID-19.
Masks will be required during the school day in classrooms, inside school buildings and on the bus, and the mandate applies to all students except for those in preschool. Students will be given breaks from wearing a mask when social distancing can be achieved, such as in the cafeteria or at recess.
Masks will not be required at outdoor sporting events.
Parents are asked to send their child to school with a mask, although the district will provide one if the student does not have one.
Black said he expects students and staff members to easily adjust to the mandate.
"This is not new; we did it all last year and the students and staff are ready for it. It's not something any of us like, but we do think it's necessary," he said during the meeting.
Black continued on this topic when asked by board member Chris Long the protocol if a student refuses to wear the mask.
"Last year we had no issues with students; I think anything like that, we would know where it's coming from. We would visit with the parents and try to get them on board; we'd eventually have to enforce it, so we would look at things like socially distancing the student in that type of scenario," Black said.
Board member Damon Goodwin asked how the board and district might determine that masks are no longer needed.
"To me, 10% of our students being out is pretty substantial... There is not a lot of guidance from the state on what that number would be to shut down a district, to shut down a campus. I think they want you to try to push as far as you can," Black said.
Board member Cliff Preston weighed in on this subject as well.
"I do think we revisit two weeks from now, and that starts our 30 days [for reviewing the mandate]... But I do think there has to be a time frame where we can say, 'ok, you can take them off...' The number is going to go down because we will only have to quarantine positive people, so I think it will immediately drop to 2%," he said.
Goodwin suggested the positivity rate in the school district as one possible way of determining when to remove the mandate.
El Dorado Superintendent Jim Tucker also initially suggested using Union County's percent positivity rate as a metric for a mask mandate, but the district's school board ended up voting for indefinite, universal masking for students, staff and faculty; the Magnolia School District bases its required mask rules on Columbia County's percent positivity rate.
The Smackover-Norphlet School Board's next regular meeting will be on Monday, Sept. 20.