Kentucky state lawmakers have passed a GOP bill that ends the statewide mask mandates for public schools and child care centers. 

J. Tyler Franklin | wfpl.org

Senator Max Wise speaks to reporters after a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Education.

Public health experts, including the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, say universal masking should be required in K-12 settings to curb the spread of COVID-19. But Republicans are siding with some conservatives who say mask mandates infringe on their First Amendment rights. Senate education committee chair Sen. Max Wise, a Republican from Campbellsville, said the bill gives decisions on masking to local school districts.

“They make that decision of what they think is best for their constituents and their communities,” Wise said.

A WFPL survey found nearly two-thirds of Kentucky school districts planned to keep masks optional before statewide mandates went into effect.

Democrats in both chambers balked at Republicans’ assertions they were protecting local control.

“Local control is not a solution for a pandemic” Rep. Patti Minter, a Democrat from Bowling Green said on the House floor. And Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, a Democrat from Louisville, said the local-control strategy was ineffective and compared it to peeing in a pool.

“You can urinate in a swimming pool over in the deep end, but not the shallow end,” she said.

The measure is part of a larger bill lawmakers say responds to issues schools are facing as COVID-19 makes a resurgence. The legislation also gives school districts slightly more flexibility to move into remote learning, makes it easier to hire substitute teachers, and protects pandemic-related absences from putting a dent in districts’ state funding.

“We’re hoping that this will give districts the flexibility that they need to get through the semester,” Wise said.

But Democrats, the state’s top education officials, and some Republicans are not so sure. The bill gives each district 20 “remote learning days,” in addition to the 10 nontraditional instruction days, or NTI days, they already had. Those days can be used to send a school or class or group of students into remote learning, but not the entire district. 

Some members worry 20 days won’t be enough for large districts like Jefferson County Public Schools, which would have to split them among 155 school buildings.

Some lawmakers wanted to bring amendments that would allow 20 days per school building, rather than per district. But leaders used an unusual legislative process to fast-track the bill, and prevented members in either chamber from adding amendments. 

After the bill’s passage, Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass released a statement reiterating concerns he voiced throughout the session.

“This law does not go far enough in providing the flexibility in different school models that our districts need. Further the politically-motivated effort to remove masking requirements in public schools weakens our virus mitigation efforts as a state at the very time they are needed most,” he wrote.

He said he would be working with districts to keep students safe “and do our best to manage the consequences of the decisions made by our legislature in this special session.”

Lawmakers were meeting in a special legislative session to address the pandemic. Gov. Andy Beshear called the session after state lawmakers transferred many of the Democratic governor’s emergency powers to themselves. The governor’s state of emergency was at risk of expiring unless he called lawmakers to Frankfort to renew it.

The measure heads to Beshear’s desk. He has the power to veto any line item, but the GOP’s supermajority means any veto will likely be overturned.

Ryland Barton contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Sen. Max Wise as a Kentucky House Representative.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.