Education Health

With weeks to go before the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, state officials say the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 has led to a quintupling of new cases since the beginning of July, mostly among unvaccinated people. Monday afternoon, Gov. Andy Beshear took to the podium with state education leaders to urge school districts to adopt mask requirements, but didn’t mandate they do so.

“Our priority is not to play politics, our priority isn’t to do some red or blue thing, or get involved in some ridiculous so-called culture war. Our priority: It’s our kids, and it is having them in class every day,” Beshear said.

Beshear said he was issuing three “clear recommendations” or “expectations,” which are in line with the July 15 guidance from the Kentucky Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • School districts should require all unvaccinated students and any unvaccinated adults to wear a mask in classrooms or indoor school settings
  • School districts should require all students under age 12 to wear a mask in classrooms or other indoor settings, as those students are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine
  • School districts “should consider universal masking” if they want to reduce the risk of quarantine and optimize in-person learning

Beshear did not not make the recommendations mandatory, as he did last school year. Mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions have drawn numerous lawsuits and sharp criticism from some conservatives. 

The governor’s reluctance to issue a mandate leaves the decision around masks to individual school districts. Many school boards are making those decisions in the coming weeks. Jefferson County Public Schools will consider its mask policy for the fall Tuesday. JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio will recommend universal masking, board documents posted Monday afternoon show. The meeting is likely to be contentious. Conservative groups have already vowed to fight mask mandates in JCPS, Oldham, Fayette and Bullitt County schools.

Reporters asked Beshear if there was a point at which he’d consider making masks mandatory in schools.

He responded that he thinks “we are going to see enough buy-in and enough results to where that is not necessary.”

State Commissioner of Education Jason Glass and Kentucky Board of Education Chair Lu Young joined Beshear in urging districts to adopt their own mask requirements.

“As we think about this new highly transmissible delta variant and the potential impact it has on unvaccinated children and youth, it becomes essential that we work together to make every effort to ensure that while in school, our students are as safe from the transmission as they can possibly be,” Young said.

Officials say they confirmed more than 5,000 new cases of COVID-19 last week, up from 1,844 cases three weeks ago. The positivity rate for COVID tests has also surged, from under 2% to near 8%. The numbers of people in the ICU and on ventilators have also sharply increased.

“What is truly driving this growth is a mixture of unvaccinated Kentuckians and a deadly aggressive variant,” Beshear said.

He urged Kentuckians to get vaccinated. Vaccination rates have stalled at around 62% of people over 18. Younger age groups are the least likely to be vaccinated, with just 36% of people aged 18-29 vaccinated statewide.

This story has been updated.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.