Most of Kentucky’s school children return to the classroom this month, amid a state-wide surge of coronavirus cases due to the delta variant. Federal and state officials say schools should institute universal masking policies to keep COVID-19 at bay. But nearly two-thirds of Kentucky school districts’ policies are not requiring masks for the new school year.
According to a WFPL survey of district websites and social media, 109 of Kentucky’s 171 school districts have said they will not mandate masks for the 2021-2022 school year. Twenty-six districts will require universal masking in any indoor setting, 8 will require masks in some circumstances, 4 districts had yet to determine their policy, and two dozen districts had no information publicly available on their website or social media pages about their masking policy for the school year.
A universal masking policy is the latest recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Kentucky Department of Public Health and the Kentucky Department of Education. Epidemiologists say, and research shows, mask mandates have been effective in curbing COVID-19. Last school year Gov. Andy Beshear mandated masks across the state, including in K-12 settings, and he faced a political backlash. This year, he hasn’t issued a mandate. Instead he’s encouraging requirements at the local level.
“It sends a much more powerful message than us just doing it here from here in Frankfort,” he said during a press briefing Thursday. He added that he would “watch the numbers” and that a statewide requirement is “not off the table by any means.”
So far, few districts have responded to Beshear’s message. In Warren County Public Schools, where the school year is already underway, masks are recommended but not required. Superintendent Rob Clayton says he’s weighing the protection of masks against other considerations.
“How do we measure the benefit of that as opposed to some of the negative psychological impacts of wearing a face covering on the social-emotional health of students?” he said.
He also pointed to the political lightning rod that masks have become.
“It’s obvious that this has become a very political and polarizing issue for many,” he said.
Some parent groups are using social media to organize against local mask mandates. The Facebook group, “Let Them Learn in Kentucky,” which formed in 2020 to oppose remote learning during the pandemic, has nearly 15,000 members. Now that all districts are required to hold in-person classes, the group has pivoted to oppose mask requirements.
Anti-mask protesters have attended school board meetings, sent out form emails to school board members and sometimes spread misinformation about the virus. Many say they believe mask mandates are a violation of their personal rights.
“If you do not give us our rights as parents—because we are Americans, and we are free—then I’m asking respectfully tonight: You need to resign,” parent Debbie Robbins told the Jefferson County Board of Education in July.
Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky’s largest district, is requiring universal masking, along with Fayette County Public Schools, the state’s other large urban school district. In Owensboro and Daviess County, the county school system, the independent city school system, and Owensboro Catholic Schools all agreed to require universal masking.
“All three districts wanted to present a united front as students and staff return to in-person learning,” guidance from Owensboro Public Schools reads.
The Louisville Archdiocese announced late Friday afternoon that it would require masks in K-8 schools, a revision of its earlier guidance, which said masks were recommended, but not mandatory. The requirement will not apply to high schools.
Meanwhile, in Knox County Schools in southeastern Kentucky, teacher and parent Tammy Gray is frustrated that her district isn’t among those with mask mandates.
“As a parent and as a teacher, my goal is to keep my children—and that includes my students—healthy. And if it takes wearing a mask, I’m all for it. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to protect these children. I just do not understand it,” she said.
Knox’s policy documents, like many districts’, emphasize parent choice.
“While at school, we believe that parents/families should make the best decision based on their child(ren) and family. Therefore, masks will be optional inside our schools,” the policy reads.
Some parents opposed to masks point to the relatively low risk of infection in children compared to adults. But Amira Roess, epidemiology professor at George Mason University, said that’s changing with delta.
“We are starting to see pretty significant increases in children who are now infected,” Roess said.
The state said it’s confirmed more than 4,000 cases in children in July 2021, up from about 1,000 cases the month prior.
And while kids aren’t usually getting as sick as adults, Dr. Joseph Flynn with Norton Medical Group said he’s seen several “profoundly ill” kids who developed multi-system inflammatory syndrome from COVID.
“More ill than any one of us would ever want our child to be,” he said. “And the problem is: we don’t know who is going to be that person.”
Back in Warren County, superintendent Rob Clayton said he’s hesitant to put a mandate in effect without a state or federal requirement.
Meanwhile, epidemiologists like Roess worry that without a governmental mask mandate, more kids will get sick, and the virus will have more opportunities to evolve into something even more dangerous. The more people the virus infects, the more chances it has to replicate and change.
“If enough of these changes occur, then it's just a matter of time before we see new changes or new variants that could really cause a lot of concern,” she said.
On Friday, nearly the entire state was in the red zone, indicating uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. Most students return to the classroom this month. Some districts have already gone back.
Ryan Van Velzer contributed to this reporting.