FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's governor on Monday urged school districts to require mask-wearing in schools to minimize the risk of disruptions from an escalating coronavirus surge fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.
With schools reopening in coming weeks, Gov. Andy Beshear called on local school district leaders to take the recommended steps needed to protect students and school workers while trying to avoid the pandemic-caused disruptions that hampered the previous academic year.
“If school districts don’t embrace mitigation efforts, we are not going to be in school every day," Beshear said at a news conference. "It’s because the delta variant is going to stop you from ultimately having your students in like you want to.”
The goal is to keep children learning in classrooms, the Democratic governor said while outlining recommendations for districts to consider. Beshear said he's confident that districts will follow the guidelines, but didn't rule out imposing mandates if there isn't the buy-in from local school leaders.
The governor offered a stern warning about the speed of the latest escalation, with statewide coronavirus cases tripling in two weeks due to the more aggressive delta variant.
“This is an escalation that is happening primarily in unvaccinated Kentuckians, and the solution remains the same — get vaccinated," Beshear said.
Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s public health commissioner, was even more blunt. The new surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care units could be “entirely preventable” because it's a “vaccine manageable condition.”
In urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Stack said: “I would sure hope we would all want to celebrate more birthdays than funerals, but unfortunately a lot of people are choosing more funerals over birthdays. It’s a tragedy because it does not need to happen."
The recommendations for school districts revolve around an overriding priority — “what gives us the best chance to have our kids in school the maximum number of days in the midst of a pandemic,” the governor said.
School districts are encouraged to require all unvaccinated adults and students to wear a mask when in class or other indoor school settings. The same mask-wearing standard should apply for all students under age 12, since they aren’t eligible for vaccinations.
To optimize safety and minimize disruptions, districts should take the extra step to require all students and adults — regardless of their vaccination status — to wear a mask when in class and other indoor settings, Beshear said.
“We’re not asking all that much when you look at keeping kids in school and protecting them," the governor said.
But the governor called it a time when “we need the courage” of superintendents and local school boards. Mask-wearing has been a volatile topic in Kentucky and nationwide. Kentucky’s mask mandate ended in June.
In comments directed to school board members statewide, Beshear acknowledged that implementing the masking recommendations "may mean that you’ve got to go through some tough school board meetings, but it’s the right thing to do. It’s what you signed up for.”
Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass predicted that school employees and students will meet the newest challenge and take the steps to keep classes open amid the delta variant threat.
“Those working in and learning in our schools know what to do, to keep in-person learning going and to do so safely," he said. "We’ve already definitively proven that. Now, as conditions have shifted again with the rise of the delta variant and reinfections, we need to call once again on your courage and dedication and commitment to keep our schools open for learning this fall.”
Kentucky reported 783 new coronavirus cases Monday. Twenty-three of Kentucky’s 120 counties are reported to be in the red zone — signaling a severe level of community spread. No Kentucky counties had the designation at the start of July.
The state’s test positivity rate — which had dipped below 2% — was 7.89% on Monday.