FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's governor on Thursday berated school leaders who refuse to extend mask requirements, accusing them of endangering children at a time the coronavirus is raging throughout the state.
While more than 80% of Kentucky school districts have decided to continue requiring mask in schools, at least two school systems chose to make facial coverings optional.
Gov. Andy Beshear had a strongly worded message for districts refusing to mandate masks.
“If you are a school district that is not requiring universal masking, you are directly endangering the children, the staff ... everybody who is in each of your buildings,” Beshear said at a news conference. “And it is an inexcusable decision. Every single public health agency, every one, has said that universal masking is the only way to keep kids in school.”
Kentucky has become a national virus hotspot with one of the highest rates of new cases of COVID-19 as the highly contagious delta variant has caused surging hospitalizations among virus patients. As of Thursday, only 93 total adult ICU beds were available statewide, Beshear said.
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. Twenty-nine percent of Thursday’s reported 4,891 coronavirus cases were school-aged children.
Kentucky also reported 62 virus-related deaths Thursday.
The Republican-dominated legislature last week shifted masking decisions to local school boards.
By late Thursday afternoon, 141 of the state’s 171 public school districts had so far decided to continue requiring masks in schools, according to the Kentucky School Boards Association. Other districts had not yet made an announcement, it said.
While most districts kept mask requirements in place, at least two exceptions are the Science Hill Independent and Gallatin County school districts. Both rural districts will allow parents to decide whether their children wear masks in schools. School employees will have the same choice.
“Nobody knows their kids better than the parents," Science Hill Superintendent Jimmy Dyehouse said in a phone interview Thursday. "So that’s why we feel that it’s most important to let them make that decision.”
Last month, Dyehouse called Beshear a “liberal lunatic” after the governor ordered mask-wearing in schools to combat the COVID-19 surge fueled by the delta variant.
The legislature scrapped a statewide mask mandate for public schools and imposed a ban on any statewide mask rules until June 2023. A separate statewide mask mandate approved by the state school board ends Friday.
In the Science Hill district, unvaccinated district employees are being encouraged to wear masks, Dyehouse said. About 85% of the district's staff members have received the COVID-19 shots, he said. Dyehouse predicted most students won’t wear masks, based on what he's heard from parents.
“We realize how serious this is and how it can be contagious, but masking kids in school is doing more harm, we feel," Dyehouse said. “Our board and myself and my parents in this community feel like it’s doing more harm than good.”
Beshear, a former state attorney general, warned about potential liability issues for school districts that refuse to require masks in schools.
“Anyone who is making those decisions is facing huge personal liability in the future,” the governor said. "Because once they make a decision that is against all science, that is against all evidence, that is against all advice and somebody gets hurt, they ought to expect to pay, one way or another.”
The Gallatin County district decided masks will be optional but recommended for students. The district is in a hospital region where intensive care units are full, according to the state.
Follow more of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.
Hudspeth Blackburn is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.