A Republican-led committee of state senators gave the greenlight Tuesday to a bill that would end statewide mask mandates for public schools and childcare centers.
Supporters of the measure say it should be up to individual school districts and parents whether to send children to school in a mask. Opponents, including Democrats on the Senate Education Committee, point to guidance from health experts that universal masking is needed to curb the rapid spread of the delta variant of COVID-19.
The proposal is part of a larger education-related bill lawmakers are considering during a special legislative session to respond to the pandemic. Gov. Andy Beshear called the session after a state supreme court decision stripped many emergency powers from the Democratic governor and put them in the hands of the Republican-led legislature.
The proposed legislation, known as Senate Bill 1, would end the Kentucky Department of Public Health’s mask requirement for childcare centers, as well as the Kentucky Department of Education’s mask mandate for K-12 public schools. School districts would have five days from the bill’s effective date to craft their own mask mandates, if they wish.
The measure passed 8-5 in the Senate Education Committee, with all three Democrats voting against, along with two Republicans. It now heads to the full Senate for consideration.
“We’ve got to allow the local control and the locals to work on what’s best for them,” said state Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville), committee chair. “I have full faith that they’re going to make the right decision.”
The majority of Kentucky school districts had planned to leave masking optional when the school year began, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking in K-12 settings.
While researchers and public health experts generally agree that mask mandates are effective at curbing the spread of COVID-19, many Republican lawmakers have been critical of mask mandates, siding with some conservatives who say they infringe on personal freedoms. In mid-August, a joint legislative committee labeled the mask mandates “deficient regulations,” signaling their intent to undo them.
Sen. Reggie Thomas (D-Lexington) and other Democrats on the education committee voted against advancing the measure. Thomas noted that nearly every Kentucky county is in the red zone, signaling uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. More than 30 school districts have had to close in-person classes due to high numbers of quarantines and infections.
“To say now that we are not going to require masks in our public schools, where our children are going to school, I think is completely irresponsible of us, and it’s bad policy,” he said.
In an open letter about the bill, Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass said he has “significant concerns,” particularly regarding elimination of the mask mandate.
“The politically-motivated effort to remove masking requirements in public schools flies in the face of virus mitigation efforts at the very time they are needed most,” Glass wrote.
Senate Bill 1 also grants school districts up to 20 “remote learning days,” in addition to the 10 “nontraditional instruction days,” or NTI days, they are already allowed for the school year.
Less than a month into the school year, many districts are rapidly blowing through their NTI allotment as growing quarantines and infections have forced them to close in-person classes.
School superintendents across the state have been clamoring for more leeway for remote learning.
Sen. Wise said the 20 remote learning days are a more “surgically focused protocol” than the 10 NTI days. The bill allows districts to use up to 20 days to send a class, school, grade or group of students into remote learning, but not the entire district.
“If a fifth-grade class is having a high number of positives, then instead of shutting down the entire school district, the fifth grade can look to move to remote learning,” Wise explained.
Jefferson County Public Schools lobbyist Abby Piper said the measure does give districts the flexibility they’ve been seeking. But she worries 20 days may not be sufficient.
“It would be great if we had the unlimited capacity to have this flexibility up to Christmas,” she said.
Meanwhile, Glass worried that the measure “does not go far enough in providing the flexibility in different school models.” The measure does not allow for district-wide hybrid learning, for example, which many districts relied on last year to keep class sizes down and students spread apart.
Other measures in the bill meant to give relief to school districts include a provision that allows districts to use pre-pandemic attendance figures to calculate state funding. Many districts worried absences during the pandemic would put a dent in state funding, which is calculated based on average daily attendance. Lawmakers also included a provision that would let districts hire substitute teachers more quickly, and rehire more retired teachers to fill in when teachers are sick or quarantined.
The proposal would also let school districts use a “test-to-stay” strategy, where students exposed to the virus could stay in school as long as they continue to test negative for COVID-19 each day.
Wise said this would be an alternative to quarantine protocols, which he said cause too many students who never contract the virus to miss school.
Test-to-stay has been tried in other states, including Massachusetts and Utah. The Oldham County Health Department says Oldham County Schools is already getting a test-to-stay program underway.