Republican-led General Assembly passes bill to eliminate universal masking in schools

Democrats in both chambers said some districts wouldn't impose mask mandates, raising the threat of the coronavirus not only in schools but the general population, leading to more deaths from COVID-19.

The Kentucky House and Senate gave final passage Thursday to a bill that would eliminate the state’s requirement to wear masks in schools and give that authority back to local school districts.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear quickly vetoed the bill but the Republican-controlled legislature appeared ready to override him just as quickly.

“This bill will also nullify, null and void the Kentucky Board of Education’s mandated masking protocol,” said Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1. “This bill will give local control back to the districts, not mandating they do, not mandating they don’t. They make the decision of what they think is best for their constituents and their communities.”

Democrats in both chambers said some districts wouldn’t impose mask mandates, raising the threat of the coronavirus not only in schools but the general population, leading to more deaths from COVID-19.

“The global pandemic is ravishing Kentucky, and yet we’re sending our kids into the lion’s den,” said Rep. Pamela Stevenson of Louisville. “Many of our students will not be protected.”

Wise acknowledged that the bill is not perfect, but called it a “tactical approach for the now” designed to keep Kentucky’s students in the classroom. 

SB1 would guarantee school funding, which is normally based on average daily attendance; address staffing shortages; set rules for how school districts can manage in-home learning and require the state Department for Public Health to develop an optional “test-to-stay” model to avoid quarantines for students who have been exposed to the virus but test negative and have no symptoms. The students would be tested for a period of days to see if they can remain in the classroom or be quarantined. 

The bill passed the Senate 28-8 and the House 70-25, largely along party lines. 

Education Commissioner Jason Glass, who was hired by a school board that Gov. Andy Beshear appointed, said in a Twitter statement that the law does not go far enough in providing the flexibility that schools 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,” Glass said. “We will be working with Kentucky’s school districts as they continue to try to keep students in school safely and do our best to manage the consequences of the decisions made by our legislature in this special session.”

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, said the bill needed to give Glass authority to deal with unforeseen issues. “We don’t know what’s going to happen between here and the next time we come back” in January, he said. 

Neal spoke at length about how the process used during the special session to pass bills at such a rapid pace did not allow amendments to be considered. Rep. Al Gentry, D-Louisville, voted against the bill after saying “I cannot support a rushed, partisan process that doesn’t allow sensible amendments.”

Gentry’s statement was read by Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, who said she trusts her school districts to make the right decisions, but voted for the bill “very reluctantly” because it goes in the wrong direction.

“We went from being a model …  to an example of how it shouldn’t be handled,” Hatton said of the pandemic. Earlier, she said people in some school districts listen too much to “politics or to a vocal minority.  … We have school boards in this state that have refused to meet in person because they’ve been threatened.”

The most popular amendment in the House was offered by Rep. Ashley Tackett Lafferty of Prestonsburg, to allow former health-department workers to return to work to relieve staffing shortages and help with the “test to stay” option, which her local health department said it couldn’t help with because of limited staffing and test materials. He motion was favored 27-11, but was defeated by Republicans who didn’t vote; suspending the rules requires a majority of House members.

Democrats said the bill flies in the face of science.

“Why do we refuse to listen to science and experts on such a deadly virus, and think we can handle it better?” asked Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville. “Masks are not that difficult,”

Rep. Tina Bojanowski of Louisville cited several studies showing that masks can prevent the spread of disease, and said Republicans had presented no research showing “local control as the best way to manage a viral pandemic.” She said they were making “a value-based decision rather than a scientific-based decision. … I carry the weight of each child’s heath on my shoulders.”

Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, called it a “life and death bill” and noted that school mask mandates are recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. “If we eliminate mask mandates, then we are putting all children and all school personnel at severe risk, and I cannot tolerate that,” Thomas said.

Rep. Rachel Roberts of Newport told the story of a toddler who died of COVID-19, then warned, “If we get this wrong, another . . . may die for lawmakers waiting to leave their egos behind.” Rep. Josie Raymond of Louisville gave a similar warning and said, “This bill takes masks off of kids when COVID is at its most dangerous.”

That was challenged by one of the relatively few House Republicans who spoke, Rep. John Blanton of Salyersville.  “We are not taking masks away from your children today,” he said, while giving schools the tools they need, such as 20 days of remote learning.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said he agreed with much of the bill, but said there were two main points of contention, masks and the lack of local control over days used for non-traditional instruction.

Pointing to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, especially among children, most of whom are not eligible to be vaccinated,  McGarvey said, “It’s irresponsible of us to take away the ability to protect our kids.” 

But Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, said, “I have complete faith in our local school districts to make the decisions related to Covid. … These are the people that see the kids every day. They live next to their parents, to their families. They are responsible every day for these kids. They will go through great pains to make sure that the decisions that they make in every area of the Covid response for their school district is in the best interest of their employees.” 

Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson of Lexington said her constituent messages were 10 to 1 in favor of universal masking in schools, and said people from all over the state come to Lexington daily, so “If everybody’s not doing their part, It’s all going to fall apart.”

Rep. Buddy Wheatley of Covington said the bill’s ban on a statewide mask mandate through June 1, 2023, is “highly, highly political.” That date falls soon after the next primary elections for governor, in which Beshear says he is running; he reiterated Wednesday that masks are essential to keeping children in school.

Republican-led General Assembly passes bill to eliminate universal masking in schools

Kentucky Health News

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.