Education Health

Members of the Jefferson County Board of Education will decide at their meeting Tuesday whether to require students and staff to wear masks when they return to classrooms in the fall. The decision comes as the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading in Louisville, especially among unvaccinated people.

At least three members of the seven-person board say they’re in favor of requiring masks for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. Currently, staff and students in summer learning programs are required to wear masks only if they aren’t vaccinated, in line with the latest CDC guidance.

District 2 member Chris Kolb cited the latest CDC recommendations in saying that in certain situations, schools may opt to require universal masking.

“It seems like the evidence is pretty clear, the guidance is pretty clear, universal masking is the way to go for now,” he said.

The CDC criteria to consider universal masking include:

  • Having a student population that is not yet eligible for vaccination (e.g., schools with pre-kindergarten through sixth grade)
  • Increasing or substantial COVID-19 transmission within the school or surrounding community
  • Increasing community transmission of a variant that is spread more easily or resulting in more severe illness from COVID-19 among children and adolescents
  • Lacking a system to monitor the vaccine status of students and/or teachers and staff
  • Difficulty monitoring or enforcing mask policies that are not universal
  • Awareness of low vaccination uptake within the student, family or teacher/staff population or community.
  • Responding to community input that many teachers, staff, parents or students would not participate in in-person learning if mask use was not universal

The CDC considers Jefferson County to have “substantial” community spread. And while case numbers are still far lower than they were during the height of the pandemic in January and February, numbers are increasing. Last week, Jefferson County health officials confirmed 414 cases, nearly double the prior week’s cases. Health officials say the increase is likely due to the delta variant, which is more than two times as contagious as the original COVID-19 strain. 

District 3’s James Craig said he will vote for universal masking, given the challenges of enforcing a mask mandate on a student-by-student basis when some students will be vaccinated and others not.

“It’s easy in the elementary school context,” Craig said, where all students are under the age of 12 and therefore ineligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

But in middle and high schools, “you’re essentially asking hall monitors to memorize the vaccination status of 2,000 students,” Craig said. “And I can see how that would be difficult.”

District 6 member Corrie Shull agreed.

“We cannot police who is and is not vaccinated,” Shull said. “So it seems to me the most responsible thing to do is to require everyone in JCPS buildings to be masked.”

Board members Joe Marshall, Diane Porter, Linda Duncan and Sarah Cole McIntosh did not respond by our deadline. But Duncan told WDRB News she would support encouraging mask wearing, but not a universal masking requirement.

District spokesperson Renee Murphy said JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio will not make a recommendation Tuesday, but will instead present “all the options” and “share information” on what is outlined in guidance from the CDC, the Kentucky Department of Public Health and the Kentucky Department of Education. From there, board members will decide.

Murphy would not say what the “options” would be, but some districts, including in Atlanta, Philadelphia and all districts in the state of California, are requiring universal masking. That’s in line with the latest recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which said last week that all students should wear masks in school, whether they’re vaccinated or not. Detroit Public Schools is considering requiring masks unless everyone in a room is vaccinated. Other districts, like most in Tennessee and Ohio, won’t require masks at all. 

Board members expect Tuesday’s meeting to be contentious given the political polarization that has emerged around mask wearing and racial equity policies. Protesters against racial equity efforts disrupted a board meeting in June, and this month, 43-year-old Bradley Linzy was charged with terroristic threatening after he allegedly confronted and verbally threatened Pollio on his way into the JCPS central office. According to the Courier Journal, just before the confrontation, Linzy was arguing with JCPS staff about the district’s decision to reinstate the mask mandate for unvaccinated students in summer learning programs.

Kolb’s former home was vandalized with red paint in late June. The current owners believe Kolb was the intended target. Kolb has been a source of ire in some conservative circles for his outspoken criticism of conservatives and the Louisville Metro Police Department, and for his advocacy for a relatively cautious approach to school reopening amid the pandemic.  

Tuesday’s meeting, at Central High School, is also the first to allow in-person public comment since the pandemic began.

Murphy said the district will have “additional security in place,” and both Craig and Shull said they are concerned about possible violence.

“There is a constituency that has fully bought into conspiracy theories and into very toxic ideas,” Shull said. “I have no reason to believe that those people would be civil and that they would not resort to violence.”

Craig said people “need to calm down the rhetoric” around masking and other issues the school board is tackling. 

“I’m really concerned for everyone’s safety. We all are,” he said.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.