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As Delta Converges With Start Of School, Some Ky. School Boards Change Course On Masks

Students at Gutermuth Elementary demonstrate leaving a classroom six feet apart on Feb. 22, 2021.
Students at Gutermuth Elementary demonstrate leaving a classroom six feet apart on Feb. 22, 2021.

This week, a wave of Kentucky school districts have announced they are making masks mandatory for all students and staff in indoor settings, a shift from previous plans that called for a recommendation only. The pivot comes amid a statewide surge of COVID-19 cases, including among school-aged children.

Local officials in Oldham County Schools, Jessamine County Schools, Warren County Public Schools, Marion County Public Schools and Bullitt County Public Schools all announced Monday or Tuesday that masks would be mandatory, rather than recommended, in their buildings.

“It was difficult,” Bullitt County Board of Education chair Debby Atherton said of the decision, noting some parents called her upset to say they want to have a choice of whether or not to mask their child. Mask mandates have become highly politicized, with some conservatives saying they are an affront to their personal freedom.

“We know that our parents would prefer to have choice; we would prefer to give them choice. But clearly the statistics are changing,” Atherton told WFPL News Tuesday morning. “I don’t think choice is going to stop the spread.”

Bullitt County Public Schools superintendent Jesse Bacon said officials decided to pivot to a mandate after the district had to quarantine more than 100 students and staff who attended open houses and orientations last week.

“We really, really had intended on providing our parents the opportunity to have that choice,” Bacon said. “But it became clear very quickly that that was going to be problematic if we didn’t do something to curb the quarantine trend.”

Like nearly all of the state, Bullitt County is in the red zone, indicating uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. The county’s vaccination rate is low, with just 37% of the population fully vaccinated. Health experts say a rise in COVID-19 is being driven by the highly contagious delta variant and low vaccination rates. Experts also say the delta variant is causing more infection among children than the original COVID-19 virus.

Kentucky confirmed more than 4,000 cases of COVID-19 in children in July, up from about 1,000 in June.

In Warren County Public Schools, superintendent Rob Clayton pivoted from a recommendation to a mask mandate Monday, afterthe district confirmed 99 cases of COVID-19 in students during the first week of the school year. More than 700 students and staff in Warren County Public Schools are currently quarantined as a result.

“I recognize this announcement will come as a disappointment to some but this additional layer of protection will improve our ability to remain in school five days per week throughout the fall semester,” a letter from Clayton reads.

Epidemiologists say, and research shows, that while masks are not foolproof, they have been effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19. Clayton, who has been publicly critical of coronavirus restrictions, threw doubt on the effectiveness of masking even as he announced the new mandate. 

“Although there is debate about the effectiveness of masks in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, we are extremely confident that wearing a mask will enable us to minimize the number of quarantines; thus minimizing the disruption created by contact tracing and the entire quarantining process,” Clayton wrote.

Guidance from the Kentucky Department of Public Health says students who are farther than three feet of a confirmed case do not have to quarantine, if they were wearing a mask.

In Oldham County Schools, superintendent Jason Radford also pointed to possible mass quarantines as a driving force behind his decision to mandate masks.

“Other districts that are comparable in size to our district have averaged approximately 100 students a day on quarantine. Each of those students is losing up to 10 in-person instructional days. Those districts have started with masks as a recommendation,” Radford wrote in a letter to the Oldham County Board of Education. 

Radford also cited a recommendation from the Oldham Board of Health which warned about a rise in children hospitalized with COVID-19 and other respiratory infections.

Elizabethtown Independent Schools and Hardin County Schools announced Tuesday they would start requiring universal masking once Hardin County’s infection rate reached 50 infections per 100,000 people. Hardin’s County’s infection rate was already at 55.2 per 100,000 on Tuesday—well into the red zone. Students return to both school systems this week; however, the mandate does not start until next week.

Despite the wave of districts changing tack early this week, the majority of Kentucky school districts’ back-to-school plans still do not mandate masks.

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