In guidance for Kentucky school districts, mask ‘requirements’ create uncertainty

In guidance for Kentucky school districts, mask ‘requirements’ create uncertainty
Kentucky education officials issued guidance Wednesday for school districts returning to in-person classes in the fall. (Source: Pixabay)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (FOX19) - Gov. Andy Beshear and state education officials revealed long-awaited guidance Wednesday for school districts in Kentucky as they prepare to welcome K-12 students back in the fall.

Beshear has called reopening schools to in-person fall classes a top priority as Kentucky works through the pandemic.

The interim “Guidance on Safety Expectations and Best Practices for Kentucky Schools” issued Wednesday seeks to protect not just students, but teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodial workers and other district employees.

“This is not just about one group of people,” Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman said. “This is truly about our community and making sure everyone is safe.”

The guidance permits flexibility in how each of Kentucky’s 172 school districts will reopen.

District superintendents will decide reopening dates and schedules, with some opting for all-remote classes at first and others adopting hybrid approaches, such as rotating students in A-B days, a.m./p.m. patterns or alternating weeks.

Pointedly, the state isn’t providing schools a metric or threshold for when they should close if they experience some number of confirmed cases in the fall.

“We tried to be careful about not offering false precision where it doesn’t exist,” Health Commissioner Steven Stack, MD, said.

Symptom monitoring and building cleaning are required. Contact tracing will take place with the help of local health departments. To that end, schools must keep bus manifests and seating charts in classrooms and cafeterias.

Temperature checks will take place before students enter buses, or parents can provide assurances their child does not have a temperature above 100.4 °F.

Temperature checks will also take place before students enter school buildings.

Social distancing in classrooms will be suggested, but Interim Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education Kevin Brown acknowledged not every district has the space to ensure six feet of distance in every classroom. So, students can be seated closer than six feet, but in that event mask use will be required.

Masks will also be required on buses, a move Brown says was necessary as districts largely do not have the money to invest in the number of buses it would take to ensure full social distancing aboard.

Evidence continues to mount demonstrating the significant positive benefits of wearing a mask in stopping the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, urging his fellow Kentuckians to wear masks in public has become one of Beshear’s most common refrains.

Still, mask use is a major concern among district superintendents, particularly pertaining to students who refuse to wear one.

Without a mask mandate from state officials, the nature of the mask ‘requirements’ mentioned above -- on buses, in hallways, when seated in classrooms that can’t accomodate social distancing -- remains uncertain.

“We certainly wouldn’t physically force a mask on any student,” interim general counsel for the Kentucky Department of Education Todd Allen said in a Superintendents Advisory Council meeting on Tuesday.

Asked about the issue Wednesday, Coleman said: “Wearing a mask is much more comfortable than wearing a respirator.”

Pressed further, she explained parents should act as role models for student behavior but stopped short of saying mask use would be mandatory among students.

Brown said the same in Tuesday’s advisory council, advocating for a “good-faith effort” from district officials down to athletics coaches to set examples of compliance in wearing masks.

Brown also acknowledged mask use is a “divisive issue in our communities” and that requiring masks places school leaders “in a conundrum.”

“The problem we’re having right now,” Brown said in Tuesday’s advisory council, “is we don’t have a societal expectation of wearing a mask unfortunately.”

In the same council meeting, Brown said: “We don’t have a ‘mask police,’ we don’t have one at KDE, nor will there be.”

Children shouldn’t be punished for not wearing a mask or taking related precautions, including social distancing and hand-washing, but it should become a “culture and climate issue” like dress codes, he said.

Additional guidance will be issued on specific topics in the coming days and weeks.

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