Legislature allows local decision making on COVID-19, masks
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna R. Kelly
School districts have more autonomy to make their own decisions regarding COVID-19 mitigation protocols and more flexibility for funding and remote learning after a special session of the General Assembly that ended on Sept. 10.
The legislature passed Senate Bill 1, which included all education-related measures designed to help districts operate during the pandemic and nullified the statewide mask mandate that had been enacted by the Kentucky Board of Education.
After the passage of the bill, districts had five days to decide whether to enact their own mask requirements. On the day the mandate expired, all but five of the 171 school districts had decided to continue to require masks.
Less than 24 hours after first declaring that masks would be optional, Gallatin County Schools reversed course and said students would be required to wear masks. At a special meeting on Oct. 1, the board decided that masks would be required when the county was red on the state’s COVID-19 incidence map.
Rep. Steve Riley, R-Glasgow, said on KET’s Kentucky Tonight that allowing districts to decide about mask requirements was the right thing to do.
“We felt like it should be a local decision, but we were not surprised at all that a lot of the school systems decided to keep the mask mandate,” Riley said. “If anybody cares about the students in their area, it’s superintendents and the local school boards and the teachers.”
KSBA’s Director of Advocacy Eric Kennedy, Education Commissioner Jason Glass and Rep. Steve Riley discuss the impacts of COVID-19 on schools on Kentucky Educational Television’s ‘Kentucky Tonight.’
KSBA's Director of Advocacy Eric Kennedy, who also appeared on the program, said that after the session school boards did not hear a lot of uproar from parents or constituents about masks.“I’ve heard my members say at the very end it was almost anti-climactic, there was not a lot of outreach, there was not a lot of opposition to what the boards ended up doing,” he said.
Most parents and board members wanted to do whatever they could to keep kids in schools, he said.
Many districts developed their own metrics about when masks would no longer be required. Some, like Gallatin County will require masks when the county is red, and other districts will require masks when their county is orange. Some districts planned to evaluate the need for masks on a weekly basis.
Other districts planned to require masks until at least two weeks after students returned from fall break to mitigate the chances of spread after travel.
Masks remain required on buses in all districts under a federal requirement.
In addition to returning the mask decision to local districts, SB 1 also gave districts more flexibility for remote instruction. The law includes 20 temporary remote instruction (TRI) days that can be used for a single building or even a classroom while the rest of the district remains open. The new TRI days are in addition to the 10 Non-Traditional Instruction days districts already had.
As of the first week of October, at least 47 districts had paused in-person instruction due to COVID-19 at least once since the school year began. Some had to stop in-person instruction more than once.
Rep. Kim Banta, R-Ft. Mitchell, discusses SB1 on the House floor during the special session. (Provided by LRC)
SB1 also allowed districts to decide on their own quarantine guidelines and directed the Department for Public Health to develop a “test to stay” program, which allows students who would otherwise be quarantined to stay in class if they test negative each day.“The districts that have started that already are showing tremendous success in keeping students in the classroom safely, which is the number one goal of everyone in the conversation,” Kennedy said.
The law also provided districts more flexibility on hiring substitute teachers and bringing retired teachers back to the classroom.
After the special session, the Kentucky Department of Education announced a $100 vaccine incentive for all school district employees, including school board members. An increase in staff vaccinations would mean a decrease in the chances schools will have to close due to a high number of staff in quarantine because the CDC says vaccinated people do not have to quarantine.
Many school boards have voted to match the $100 to provide even more incentive for employees to get vaccinated. As of the first week of October, at least 54 Kentucky public school employees had died from the virus, according to media reports.