FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Assigned by the Kentucky legislature to settle a suddenly volatile political issue, school boards across the Bluegrass State voted overwhelmingly to keep masks on students and staffs while at school as COVID-19 infections continue to mount.
On Friday, as a statewide mask mandate in schools ended, a count showed that 165 of the state’s 171 public school districts decided to extend universal masking in schools, according to the Kentucky School Boards Association. Six districts opted to make mask-wearing optional. A handful of districts kept mask requirements in place until school board meetings next week.
The Republican-led legislature last week shifted masking decisions to local school leaders.
Districts making mask-wearing optional were Science Hill Independent, Gallatin County, Burgin Independent, Hickman County, Mercer County and Clinton County, the count showed.
As of Thursday, Clinton County along the Tennessee border was the only Kentucky county not situated in the high-incidence “red zone” for virus cases.
The outcomes showed school leaders were up to the task of deciding the issue, Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said Friday. He took issue with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s recent remarks that lawmakers “punted” the decision on mask-wearing in schools to local boards.
“We felt that it would be better for local people to make the local decisions,” Stivers told reporters. “And we didn’t punt anything.”
As for the lopsided outcome among districts to continue masking up in schools, Stivers said: “Whether that’s right or wrong, I don’t know. But it’s them who had the local dynamics and made this decision. … And he (Beshear) said we punted? No, we have a little bit more faith in our local school boards and our local superintendents than he does.”
Beshear lashed out Thursday at districts that backed away from universal masking requirements. Such decisions are “inexcusable” and endanger students and staff, he said. Universal masking is essential, he said, to keep schools open amid the latest coronavirus surge.
The governor kept up the criticism Friday, saying districts that made masks optional were failing their students.
“Our state is on fire with more cases right now, more people in the hospital, more people in the ICU and more people on ventilators than ever before,” Beshear said.
There were caveats to the policies in some school systems choosing to make masking optional.
In the Mercer County district, a spike in the district’s COVID-19 positivity rate for three straight days would trigger a masking requirement for at least a week.
In the Burgin district, masking will take place everywhere in school except when students are seated at their “personal workstation” in class and when they are seated for breakfast or lunch.
Kentucky has recently emerged as a national coronavirus hotspot with one of the highest rates of new virus cases, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
School-age children have contracted the virus at a higher rate than other age groups in Kentucky, while the statewide vaccination rate among 12- to 17-year-olds is the lowest of any age group.
The governor has said he would have ordered mask-wearing in indoor public places if he still had the authority to do so to respond to the current virus surge. He said his previous mask mandates halted earlier COVID-19 surges.
Beshear lost much of his authority to unilaterally combat the pandemic when Republican lawmakers limited the governor’s emergency powers. The state Supreme Court upheld the legislature’s actions, and lawmakers set pandemic policies in a recent special session. They scrapped the statewide school mask mandate and put a ban on any statewide mask rules until June 2023.
Beshear, who plans to seek reelection in 2023, said last week that the onus is now on lawmakers to keep Kentuckians safe, declaring that the legislature “owns this pandemic moving forward.”
Follow more of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.