After successfully surmounting a late-night veto from Gov. Andy Beshear, Kentucky’s school mask mandate will soon be rendered null and void, leaving the decision up to local school districts.
“This bill will give local control back to the districts,” the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, vowed Thursday. “They make the decision of what they think is best for their constituents and communities.”
Senate Bill 1 voids a regulatory mask mandate backed by the Kentucky Department of Education and prohibits the agency from proclaiming another mandate “that is identical to, or substantially the same” until June 2023. Under the new law, that mandate “shall be null, void and unenforceable five working days from the effective date of this act” – in other words, from Thursday.
Beshear recently withdrew his own school mask mandate after the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled against him, and he called last week’s whirlwind special legislative session so lawmakers could craft their own response to the pandemic.
On Friday, Beshear spoke to reporters in Frankfort about the conclusion of the special session. He warned that schools can either follow the science and implement universal masking in schools, consistent with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “or they endanger our children by not.”
“If you don’t have universal masking … your kids won’t be in school” because of how quickly the delta variant spreads, Beshear said.
WCPS spokeswoman Lauren Thurmond forwarded the following statement from Superintendent Rob Clayton on Friday:
“Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) is aware of the passage of Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) which occurred overnight on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. Our WCPS district leaders are currently in communication with local health care experts, local hospital officials and the WCPS Board of Education members to form a plan of action based on the parameters identified in SB 1. WCPS will be prepared to have more information for release on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. After a sharp rise in COVID cases across our community, on August 9, 2021, WCPS announced a mask requirement to begin on August 11, 2021, before Governor Beshear’s Executive Order or the Kentucky Department of Education’s emergency regulation. This decision was made under the legal authority of the school district. This requirement is currently not affected by the Kentucky General Assembly’s passage of SB 1. Please be advised that all students and staff continue to be required to wear masks while in WCPS’ schools or district buildings.”
In a follow-up interview with the Daily News on Friday afternoon, Clayton went further, describing a mask requirement as an important public health tool – especially when it comes to keeping schools open for students.
“All the data points to the mask requirement being an essential piece of ensuring that we’re able to provide in-person instruction five days per week, and that will remain a primary focus moving forward,” Clayton said. “Under the current conditions, it’s evident that requiring the masks is essential for us to ensure that we’re providing in-person instruction five days per week.”
That said, the WCPS is also interested in providing the community with some sort of rubric or “data points” that would “cause us to come back and revisit the mask requirement.”
Several factors could influence that decision, Clayton said, but two key metrics are local hospital capacity and the state of the pandemic within the district’s schools.
“We’re at the height of the pandemic,” Clayton said. “We hope to be in a position at some point where masks are not a requirement, but again, we’re going to continue to consult with our local health officials,” and others to provide in-person instruction while mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
“The plan is to advise the board members over the weekend with some options and the ultimate goal is to communicate this formally” at an upcoming special called board meeting, Clayton said. “We are going to comply with the five-day turnaround to submit that plan to the Kentucky Department of Education and then also publicly locate it on our website.”
Bowling Green Independent School District Superintendent Gary Fields also announced Friday that he will ask the district’s school board to continue the mask mandate, citing local data.
“Legislation has now passed that eliminates the statewide mask mandate for Kentucky public schools. However, based on our local school and community data, I am recommending to our Board of Education that Bowling Green Independent Schools continue a mask mandate inside all school buildings,” Fields said, notifying faculty and staff on Friday.
“Our district will continue to track cases of COVID-19, school and household contacts, as well as data from our local medical community. We will review operational procedures monthly and inform the community should any changes be made. Active case and quarantine data is published on our district website and is updated every school day by 4 p.m.”
Asked in an earlier interview Thursday about the decision the district is facing, Fields referenced factors like the district’s positive case counts and the number of quarantines due to COVID-19 exposure.
After implementing universal masking, Fields said the district saw a drop in the number of students having to sit at home after COVID-19 exposure.
“That means we can keep more kids in school,” Fields said.
Fields also noted that – looking at local data – there remains a high rate of virus positivity in the community: “I think we can’t ignore that,” he said. The broader community has not seen a drop in positive cases yet, he said.
Still, the decision will ultimately be up to the district’s school board, Fields said.
“I’m not a single person making the decision,” Fields said. He added that he will ask the board to consider the community’s high virus positivity rate and how universal masking has enabled more students to remain in class because of the reduced risk of exposure. “That’s a good thing,” he said.
Senate Bill 1 also offers schools some additional, though limited, flexibility with remote instruction options.
“It’s a major contradiction,” Beshear said of the legislation on Friday. “You’re either for local control or you’re not,” he said, referring to state lawmakers who supported the measure.
Senate Bill 1 grants school districts 20 days of “remote instruction,” which it defines as distinct from nontraditional instruction days. Those are capped under state law at 10 per year. Lawmakers did not grant school districts more NTI days.
The key difference is that NTI days are used to close an entire district, while lawmakers have described remote instruction as more “surgical.”
Under Senate Bill 1, “a school district may temporarily assign students at the school, grade, classroom or student group level to remote instruction due to significant absences of students or staff related to the COVID-19 pandemic until December 31, 2021.”
School districts were also given additional flexibility around hiring practices with the aim of addressing staffing shortages. Students could also experience longer school days after a change that allows lengthening the school day instead of tacking on missed days due to COVID-19 to the end of the school year.
Senate Bill 1 also directs the state’s Department for Public Health to develop a COVID-19 “test to stay” model for schools to implement if they choose in order to “minimize the impact of quarantining non-symptomatic students and staff.”
That model, which is still being piloted in some school districts across the state, allows non-symptomatic students to stay in school after exposure to COVID-19 provided they continue to wear face masks and take a rapid test every day, typically over a six-day period.
Asked about the viability of such a model in his own school district, Fields said his district is largely satisfied with its current testing model and that a “test to stay” alternative likely wouldn’t be cost-effective for BGISD. It’s “probably not something that we’re going to pursue,” due to low numbers of students in quarantine, he said.
Asked about the viability of that kind of model within the county schools, Clayton told the Daily News on Friday that the district currently lacks the human resources to make that happen. Still, it’s continuing to explore the possibility in the event that changes, Clayton said.