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House committee advances bill to ban mask mandates for public schools and universities

Students at Wilder Elementary return to in-person education on the first day of school in Jefferson County.
Students at Wilder Elementary return to in-person education on the first day of school in Jefferson County.

Public schools, colleges, universities and publicly funded child care centers in Kentucky would no longer be able to require masks to protect against COVID-19 under a bill advanced in the House Education Committee Tuesday morning.

The bill’s sponsor, Marion Republican Rep. Lynn Bechler, says he’s bringing the bill “because of the problems brought on by mask-wearing.”

Without presenting evidence, Bechler blamed masks for increased suicide rates. He also said masks were linked to speech disorders and acne.

“I'm sure that you've all noticed that acne is worse during the pandemic, especially when wearing a mask all day,” he said.

Bechler also claimed that “masks don’t work,” an assertion in conflict with many studies and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mask mandates have become highly politicized during the pandemic, with many conservatives claiming they infringe on personal liberties. Research conducted over the last two years, however, suggests mask mandates have been effective at curbing the spread of COVID-19. The CDC still recommends universal masking in K-12 settings.

Oldham County parent Kristen Worthen urged the committee not to advance the measure. Worthen brought a photo of her 4-year-old son, who has a medical condition that puts him at high risk for complications from COVID-19.

“To take away this protection from my family, to take away my children's ability to attend school, by advocating for this bill, you're actively advocating against medically fragile kids and their families,” she said. 

Mask mandate decisions have been up to local school districts since a special legislative session in September 2021. That’s when the GOP-led legislature stripped Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear of his authority to impose mask mandates in schools, and passed a law ending a statewide mask mandate from the Kentucky Department of Education. Republicans who supported the measure said it should be up to individual districts whether to impose mask mandates.

In committee Tuesday, many Republicans said they felt “conflicted” over the new proposed mask mandate ban, since it thwarts local control. But ultimately, the measure passed 12-7, with most Republicans voting in favor of the measure, and all Democrats voting against.

Rep. Killian Timoney, a Fayette County Public Schools administrator, was one of two Republicans who voted against the bill, saying he wanted to do “ whatever we got to do”  to keep kids in school in person. 

“For me, this is a mask versus [remote learning]...All the evidence about mask wearing and harm is anecdotal,” he said.

The measure heads to the GOP-led House for another vote.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence.

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