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Jefferson Co. Board of Education votes to relax mask mandate

Students are shown how to go through the lunch line on the first day of school at Wilder Elementary.
Students are shown how to go through the lunch line on the first day of school at Wilder Elementary.

The Jefferson County Board of Education voted 4-3 Tuesday night to relax its mask requirement and bring protocols in line with new federal and state health guidance.

The motion, brought by District 3 board member James Craig, allows Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio to make masks optional when the county is in the CDC’s green or yellow zones. Masks will remain mandatory for students and staff when the county is in the red zone.

Jefferson County is currently in the yellow zone, but Pollio said the mandate will remain in effect for Wednesday and that he’ll send information to families soon.

His new authority expires June 30. At that point, the board will reevaluate the state of the district and the pandemic.

“It's my strong belief that the board follow public health guidance,” Craig said. “It helps the board maintain legitimacy in the way that it makes its decisions.”

“There are definitely times when we need to defer to the experts,” District 7 board member Sarah Cole McIntosh said. She voted in favor of the new mask policy. So did District 5 member Linda Duncan. She pointed to the low positivity rate of the district’s students.

Of the 21,202 students tested the last week of February, just 163 tested positive, according to district staff.

But not all members agreed with the decision to relax the mask mandate.

"I still think that caution is the way that we should go," District 2 board member Chris Kolb said. 

"Not having a mask mandate is just flat-out discrimination against vulnerable kids," Kolb said, pointing to a lawsuit the ACLU filed in Virginia over the governor’s executive order banning mask mandates.

The discussion came hours after the Kentucky House of Representatives passed its own measure banning mask mandates, which has yet to be heard in the Senate.

Kolb voted against relaxing JCPS’ mask mandate, along with District 6 board member Corrie Shull and board chair and District 1 member Diane Porter.

Kolb, Porter and Shull were among a majority of members in January who voted down Pollio’s recommendation to adopt the CDC’s new shortened quarantine and isolation periods.

Shull made no comments before the vote. Instead he asked District Health Manager Eva Stone what JCPS’ student vaccination rate is. The answer was 32%.

District 4 member Joe Marshall voted with the majority in opposing the relaxed quarantine and isolation in January. But on Tuesday, he voted to adopt the CDC’s new less-restrictive mask requirements.

“We are one of the last ones holding the wall, and we've fought the good fight,” Marshall said. But, he said, “I think that there comes a time where we have to celebrate, you know, where we are and allow for an opportunity to learn this new way that is normal.” 

He added that the resources and information families need to protect themselves is available.

At the end of February, the CDC relaxed its guidance around masking, recommending masking decisions be made based on the level of spread and the availability of hospital beds at the county level. The Kentucky Department of Public Health (KDPH) updated its guidance on Mar. 4.

The latest guidance on masking

The latest CDC guidance divides counties into risk categories based on the new criteria: low, medium and high. The CDC recommends universal masking in schools only for counties in the high-risk category. Though guidance from the KDPH says counties in the medium-risk category can “consider” universal masking in schools. 

Current CDC charts show Jefferson County in the medium-risk category, along with most of the western half of the state. Most of the eastern half of the state, Oldham County, and a few western Kentucky counties remain high-risk.

Below is the matrix from the CDC for determining a community’s risk.

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