Local schools respond to passing of Senate Bill 1

FRANKFORT, Ky.  — Kentucky lawmakers voted Thursday to scrap a statewide mask mandate in public schools and shifted masking decisions to local school boards, acting in a special session as the state’s worst COVID-19 surge threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

The GOP-dominated legislature set education policies in response to disruptions caused by the virus, which has forced dozens of school districts to close classrooms. The masking provisions sparked emotional debate on the third and final day of the special session called by the Democratic governor to address the pandemic.

Gov. Andy Beshear responded late Thursday night by vetoing portions of the bill nullifying mask mandates for K-12 public schools and child-care centers. Republican lawmakers quickly overrode his vetoes, completing their work to end statewide mask mandates.

Lawmakers ended the special session soon after that.

Beshear’s veto message referred to masks as a “safe and effective way” to combat the spread of COVID-19. The governor previously issued statewide mask mandates and recently said he thought another mask order was needed to confront the current surge.

The special session marked a power shift in the state’s response to the virus. Throughout the pandemic, Beshear acted unilaterally in setting statewide virus policies, saying his actions saved lives. Republicans branded his actions as overly broad and stringent.

The special session comes as Kentucky’s hospitals struggle with a record influx of virus cases. Beshear warned Thursday that only 90 adult intensive care beds were available statewide. He noted nearly two-thirds of Kentucky’s hospitals face critical staffing shortages, and more than 300 Kentucky National Guard members will be headed to 21 hospitals to assist health care workers.

“Our hospital situation has never been more dire in my lifetime than it is right now,” Beshear said.

Working late into the night, Republican lawmakers asserted their newfound dominance in shaping Kentucky’s pandemic policies — the result of a state Supreme Court ruling last month. The court cleared the way for laws to take effect limiting the governor’s emergency powers to impose virus restrictions. The governor responded by calling the legislature into session.

The school-related bill nullified the state school board’s requirement that anyone in public K-12 schools wear a mask. It also ended a separate state mask mandate for child-care centers.

Another bill winning final passage Thursday night imposed a prolonged ban on any statewide mask mandate, leaving masking decisions up to local governments and businesses. It was part of a broad measure addressing medical staffing, vaccines, tests and treatments related to COVID-19.

Beshear also vetoed mask provisions in that bill. Republican lawmakers swiftly overrode that veto as well.

The legislature also passed a measure to appropriate more than $69 million in federal funds for pandemic-related efforts. The funds are aimed at increasing COVID-19 testing for health care providers, schools, health departments and correctional facilities. The governor signed that measure into law, his office said.

During debate on the schools bill, supporters said mask decisions are best left to local boards, to reflect the will of their communities.

Warren County Public School’s released this statement on Friday:

“Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) is aware of the passage of Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) which
occurred overnight on Thursday, September 9, 2021. Our WCPS district leaders are currently in
communication with local health care experts, local hospital officials and the WCPS Board of
Education members to form a plan of action based on the parameters identified in SB 1. WCPS
will be prepared to have more information for release on Monday, September 13, 2021. After a
sharp rise in COVID cases across our community, on August 9, 2021, WCPS announced a
mask requirement to begin on August 11, 2021, before Governor Beshear’s Executive Order or
the Kentucky Department of Education’s emergency regulation. This decision was made under
the legal authority of the school district. This requirement is currently not affected by the
Kentucky General Assembly’s passage of SB 1. Please be advised that all students and staff
continue to be required to wear masks while in WCPS’ schools or district buildings.”

Bowling Green Independent Schools Superintendent, Gary Fields also released a statement Friday.

“Legislation has now passed that eliminates the statewide mask mandate for Kentucky public schools. However, based on our local school and community data, I am recommending to our Board of Education that Bowling Green Independent Schools continue a mask mandate inside all school buildings. Our district will continue to track cases of COVID-19, school and household contacts, as well as data from our local medical community. We will review operational procedures monthly and inform the community should any changes be made. Active case and quarantine data is published on our district website and is updated every school day by 4:00 p.m.”