FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Assigned by the Kentucky legislature to settle a volatile political issue, school boards across the Bluegrass State voted overwhelmingly to keep masks on students and staffs while at school as COVID-19 infections continue to mount.
On Friday, as a statewide mask mandate in schools ended, a count showed that 165 of the state’s 171 public school districts decided to extend universal masking in schools, according to the Kentucky School Boards Association. Six districts initially opted to make mask-wearing optional, but late Friday one of the school systems reversed course to require masks for the next two weeks. A handful of districts kept mask requirements in place until school board meetings next week.
The state reported 5,133 new COVID-19 cases and 45 more virus-related deaths Friday. For the second straight day, fewer than 100 adult intensive care unit beds were available in Kentucky — a pandemic first in the state, Gov. Andy Beshear said. Kentucky also reached a pandemic-high with 463 virus patients on ventilators, he said.
With the delta variant still fueling the COVID-19 surge in Kentucky, Beshear said: “This is an important moment for us to do the right things — to get vaccinated, to put on masks.”
Much of the attention in recent days focused on school districts, after the state's Republican-led legislature last week shifted masking decisions to local school leaders.
Districts initially making mask-wearing optional were Science Hill Independent, Gallatin County, Burgin Independent, Hickman County, Mercer County and Clinton County, the count showed. Late Friday, the Gallatin County district announced it would require masks in school for the next 10 school days due to a high number of virus cases and quarantines in the district.
As of Thursday, Clinton County along the Tennessee border was the only Kentucky county not situated in the high-incidence “red zone” for virus cases.
The outcomes showed school leaders were up to the task of deciding the issue, Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said Friday. He took issue with Beshear's recent remarks that lawmakers “punted” the decision on mask-wearing in schools to local boards.
“We felt that it would be better for local people to make the local decisions," Stivers told reporters. "And we didn’t punt anything.”
As for the lopsided outcome among districts to continue masking up in schools, Stivers said: “Whether that’s right or wrong, I don’t know. But it’s them who had the local dynamics and made this decision. ... And he (Beshear) said we punted? No, we have a little bit more faith in our local school boards and our local superintendents than he does.”
Beshear lashed out Thursday at districts that backed away from universal masking requirements. Such decisions are “inexcusable” and endanger students and staff, he said. Universal masking is essential, he said, to keep schools open amid the latest coronavirus surge.
The governor kept up the criticism Friday, saying districts that made masks optional were failing their students.
"Our state is on fire with more cases right now, more people in the hospital, more people in the ICU and more people on ventilators than ever before,” Beshear told reporters.
There were caveats to the policies in some school systems choosing to make masking optional.
In the Mercer County district, if a spike in its COVID-19 positivity rate reached a certain level for three straight school days, it would trigger a masking requirement for at least a week until the cases go back down.
In the Burgin district, masking will take place everywhere in school except when students are seated at their “personal workstation” in class and when they are seated for breakfast or lunch.
Kentucky has recently emerged as a national coronavirus hotspot with one of the highest rates of new virus cases, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
School-age children have contracted the virus at a higher rate than other age groups in Kentucky, while the statewide vaccination rate among 12- to 17-year-olds is the lowest of any age group.
The governor has said he would have ordered mask-wearing in indoor public places if he still had the authority to do so to respond to the current virus surge. He said his previous mask mandates halted earlier COVID-19 surges.
Beshear lost much of his authority to unilaterally combat the pandemic when Republican lawmakers limited the governor’s emergency powers. The state Supreme Court upheld the legislature’s actions, and lawmakers set pandemic policies in a recent special session. They scrapped the statewide school mask mandate and put a ban on any statewide mask rules until June 2023.
Late Friday afternoon, Beshear tried to tamp down political controversies swirling around the pandemic. In a social-media message, the governor urged Kentuckians to remember "this isn’t about Democrat-Republican or red or blue, it’s about life and death. And we need to do what it takes to protect one another.”
Follow more of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.