Coronavirus Education

Several Kentucky school districts are doing away with mask mandates, citing a drop in coronavirus infections. But public health officials warn the decision could cause cases to spike again.

Warren County Public Schools, Campbellsville Independent Schools and Breckinridge County Schools are among a number of districts that plan to make masks optional in the next week or two. 

“Our numbers in our community have dropped drastically — we’re actually now in the orange,” Campbellsville Independent Schools superintendent Kirby Smith told WFPL News. “We felt now was a time to give this a try and give folks the option to mask or not.”

The orange zone signifies substantial spread, according to the state, with a weekly average of 10 to 25 new daily cases per 100,000 people. The red zone signifies “high” spread, with more than 25 new daily cases per 100,000 people. 

Most of the state is still in the orange or red zone, but Smith says for rural counties like his, just five or six new cases a day can put the county in the red zone. Campbellsville is in Taylor County, with a population of 26,000.

That’s why the school board voted to raise the threshold for making masks mandatory to 75 new daily cases per 100,000 for the county, starting Monday. He says the district only knows of one current case — in a staff member.

“We have 1,200 students and, right now, knock on wood, we don’t have a single case with our students,” Smith said. 

Warren County Public Schools is lifting its mask mandate effective Nov. 1, and loosening the district’s quarantine policy so that close contacts of positive cases will only have to quarantine if they show symptoms. 

“We are optimistic that we can continue to provide in-person instruction five days per week with optional masking and an amendment to our quarantine process,” Warren County Public Schools superintendent Rob Clayton wrote in a Friday letter to families.

Warren County began the year with masks optional, but shifted to a mandate after hundreds of students and staff were quarantined within the first week of school, threatening operations. The new policy stands to significantly reduce the number of students and staff who will have to quarantine, though it is not in line with guidance from state and national public health officials.

The Kentucky Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend universal masking in all indoor K-12 settings, and the quarantine of unvaccinated people who come into close contact with infected people, regardless of symptoms. People may still be infected and contagious with COVID-19, even if they do not yet have symptoms.

Decisions worry local health official

Meanwhile these decisions are making some public health officials nervous. 

“It does scare us a little bit,” Breckinridge County health director Scott Shrewsberry told WFPL. Breckinridge County Schools is making masks optional on Monday, Oct. 25, citing declining COVID-19 cases and quarantines. The rural county of about 20,000 people is in the red zone, with five to six new cases a day. 

“If we have a case in a classroom of say 30, 35 kids, I mean that stuff can ping-pong back and forth like none other,” Shrewsberry said. “And yes, the little ones tend to recuperate quite a bit better than some of our older, immunocompromised folks, but still, you run that risk.”

Shrewsberry said he also worries about students taking the virus home to vulnerable or unvaccinated families members. More than a third of Kentuckians have yet to receive a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In Shrewsberry’s county, vaccination rates are even lower: About 56% of the county’s residents have received a first dose.

“Ideally, we would like to see folks keep the mask on,” he said, but he believes the school board is under pressure from constituents who oppose mask mandates. Mask requirements have become politicized, with many on the right saying they infringe on their personal liberties.

“We’ve had a lot of businesses and things like that since the very beginning that have seemed to struggle a little bit to enforce the mask mandate with the general public,” he said.

Shrewsberry is hoping the new mask policies don’t cause another spike like the county saw this summer when the county went from 69 total cases in July to 690 cases in August. The hospital didn’t have enough beds, the health director said.

“We have one lone rural hospital,” he said. “Talking with one of my physicians, he was just like ‘I can’t find a place to put anybody.’”

State officials expressed similar concerns earlier this week. On Monday Gov. Andy Beshear urged districts not to drop mask mandates, despite falling cases.

“The first thing that would pop these numbers back up is if we came off universal masking in schools,” Beshear said.

Decisions around masking were left to local school districts in September, after the GOP-led state legislature scrapped a statewide mandate from the Kentucky Department of Education, and a judge upheld laws limiting Beshear’s emergency powers.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.