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Jefferson County Board Of Education Requires Universal Masking For Fall

School-provided supplies include one cloth facemask, emblazoned with the Gutermuth Elementary mascot.
School-provided supplies include one cloth facemask, emblazoned with the Gutermuth Elementary mascot.

All students and staff in Jefferson County Public Schools will be required to wear a mask indoors in the fall, whether they’re vaccinated against COVID-19 or not. The Jefferson County Board of Education approved the universal masking recommendation from JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio in a unanimous vote at its meeting Tuesday night. District 5 board member Linda Duncan, who had previously told WDRB she could not support a mask mandate, was absent.

“Our only hope of staying in school is that we implement every mitigation strategy possible,” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told the board as he presented the mask mandate and back-to-school plan.

The vote came after nearly two hours of impassioned public comment both for and against the mandate. Held at Central High School, it was the first meeting since the pandemic began that the board heard in-person public comment. Mask-wearing and other COVID-19 protocols have become politically charged in some conservative circles. Dozens of anti-mask protesters attended the meeting. As the crowd entered the school building, police scanned each person with a metal detecting wand to check for weapons—part of the district’s heightened security protocols, given a recentalleged threat against Pollio from a man opposed to mask mandates.

Many protesters were with the group “Let Them Learn in JCPS,” which organized last year to oppose COVID-19 restrictions on schools and push for a return to in-person classes. 

“Keep your mandates and masks off my children, who would like to be children without the added smothering of a mask,” parent Natalie Rawlings told the board. 

Some protesters falsely claimed the masks are ineffective. Many argued that the virus doesn’t present enough risk to children to make masks mandatory. A few questioned the efficacy or safety of vaccination, sometimes making unfounded claims.

Parent Debbie Robbins said she’s “sick to death of people living in fear,” and that God put her in charge of her son.

“If you do not give us our rights as parents—because we are Americans and we are free—then I am asking you respectfully tonight—you need to resign,” she said.

Meanwhile, parent Tiffany Calvert supported the mask mandate.

“We protect not only children who cannot yet get vaccinated, but all of the most vulnerable people in our society,” she said.

The board’s mask decision comes just hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidance to recommend universal masking in K-12 settings. The CDC previously recommended masks for at least unvaccinated people, but changed its recommendation Tuesday over concerns about the increased transmissibility of the delta variant COVID-19. The highly contagious variant has caused a surge of cases across the country among mostly unvaccinated people, including in Jefferson County. The CDC now considers Jefferson County a community of “substantial” transmission.

Pollio planned to recommend universal masking even before the CDC changed its guidance, citing the agency’s earlier recommendation that districts may opt for universal masking if community transmission is substantial or high, or if it would be too difficult to enforce masks in settings where some students are vaccinated but others aren’t.

With no state-level COVID-19 safety mandates, it’s up to individual school districts to decide on mask policies and other COVID-19 protocols.Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday he strongly recommends districts to adopt mask mandates for at least all unvaccinated students and staff. But unlike last school year, he stopped short of issuing a mandate.

Speakers Blast “Critical Race Theory”

Many speakers used their two-and-a-half minutes to blast “critical race theory” in schools. Critical race theory is a decades-old body of scholarship that some conservatives are using to refer to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. These activist circles often overlap with anti-mask circles. They accused teachers of making white students feel bad about being white, and making Black students feel like victims. Others claimed racial equity efforts are part of a Marxist takeover.

Retired teacher Charlotte Warren said the JCPS professional development materials she’s seen are “pervasive with Marxist oppression and victimhood.”

“This is anti-racist racism,” she said.

JCPS has increased online diversity, equity and inclusion trainings for staff since the summer of racial justice protests in 2020.

Counter protesters attended as well, many organized by the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. JCPS teacher and racial justice movement leader Tyra Walker defended the district’s efforts to make curriculum more inclusive and teach about racism.

“It is time to acknowledge the price Black people were forced to pay to build this country,” Walker said. “It is time to put our facts in our curriculum, regardless of whether they have people uncomfortable,” she said.

In addition to the mask requirement, the board approved a number of dual-credit classes Tuesday, including Introduction to Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. Another course designed with the Pan-African Studies department recently drew the attention of activists when the Courier Journal reported JCPS erased the term “critical race theory” from the course framework documents.

Vaccination, Testing, Distancing, Quarantine

The board also updated the district’s back-to-school strategy to include plans for encouraging vaccination among students and their families, holding vaccination events and weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated students. When it comes to distancing, the district says “to the greatest extent practicable,” there should be at least three feet of space between students, and six feet of space between adults, and from adult to student.

Quarantine rules are as follows:

  • A close contact is an unvaccinated adult who was within six feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes while the person was considered contagious, even when wearing a mask. 
  • A close contact is an unvaccinated student who was within three feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes while the person was considered contagious, even when wearing a mask. 
  • Fully-vaccinated persons do not need to quarantine following an exposure to a person diagnosed with COVID-19 if not experiencing symptoms. 

Virtual Elementary School Option to Be Offered

Officials announced a one-year expansion of the fully online school option to grades K-5. JCPS already announced plans in Aprilto expand the online high school, Jefferson County High School, into the middle school grades. 

The virtual school, which will serve all grades K-12 next year, is being renamed the Pathfinder School of Innovation. Children who enroll in Pathfinder will no longer be enrolled at their current elementary school for the 2021-2022 school year. Pollio said the elementary school program will likely end after the end of the school year. The middle and high school virtual school options would continue.

When JCPS announced the expansion to middle school, some parents expressed dismay that the program was not extended to elementary school students, who are not eligible for vaccination.

Outline Approved For $384 Million In Federal Aid

Board members approved an outline for spending $384 million in funding from the third federal coronavirus stimulus package. Officials say they plan to spend the funds on the following priorities:

JCPS officials say they consulted the community through online and hard-copy surveys and two forums. JCPS Chief Communications Officer Renee Murphy said 1,802 people responded to the surveys.

Staff highlighted plans for “student learning centers,” which will provide after-school programming and wrap-around services for students. They are planned for west Louisville, Smoketown and Newburg—all areas with high numbers of Black and low-income students.

Pollio said staff will come back to the board with updates on plans for the spending every six months.

Funds from the third federal stimulus package have to be spent by September 2024. The district also received $35 million from the first federal relief package, which has already been spent. The funding from the second package, $178 million must be spent by September 2023. The time limit presents districts with the challenge of finding ways to spend the funds without having to make cuts when it runs out.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the dual-credit course in Pan-African studies was the same course which had mention of “critical race theory” erased from framework documents. Actually, they are two separate courses. The course from which JCPS erased mention of critical race theory is “Developing Black Historical Consciousness,” an elective designed with U of L’s Pan-African Studies department.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.