By Jacob Perkins
Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass was joined by Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) Chair Lu Young to testify before the Kentucky General Assembly’s Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee for nearly three hours on Aug. 17 regarding the KBE’s recently adopted emergency regulation requiring universal masking in schools.
“None of us wanted to be in a situation where we were continuing to battle COVID-19, the sickness and death it creates and the mitigation steps that we have all had to live with for these past 18 months,” Glass said. “If there is anything that should unite us on this issue, it is that we would all like to have this behind us and as soon as possible.”
Following the discussion with Glass and Young, the Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee voted 5-2 to find the board’s regulation deficient.
State Rep. Mary Lou Marzian described the proceedings as “political theatre,” as both Glass and Young faced an onslaught of questions and comments related to the regulation throughout the meeting. The 38-year nurse said she is supportive of the science and data that supports the use of masks in schools and appreciates the board’s emergency regulation.
“I want to say thank you from my district. Thank you from my school superintendent. Thank you from my daughter and my son-in-law, who teach in public schools and my grandchildren who attend public schools and are happy to wear their masks,” Marzian said.
Individuals and groups signed up to speak at the meeting in favor and against the KBE’s emergency regulation, including the Kentucky Student Voice Team.
Last year, the group surveyed nearly 10,000 students representing 119 of Kentucky’s 120 counties, hoping to better understand the student experience throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings suggested students yearned for a return to in-person instruction.
“The Kentucky Student Voice Team strongly supports the statewide mask mandate for schools, and the Kentucky Board of Education’s regulation,” said Pragya Upreti, a senior at Lafayette High School (Fayette County). “While we were hopeful to return to school this year without masks, rising COVID-19 cases and the spread of the Delta variant have clearly made doing so unsafe.”
Also speaking during the meeting was Shannon Stocker, an Oldham County parent whose daughter, Cassidy, received her 16th chemotherapy treatment on Aug. 12.
Cassidy is battling brain cancer and recently received her third COVID-19 immunization, a booster shot, because her cancer treatments compromise her immune system. Upon the approval of the board’s emergency regulation, her oncology team approved her return to in-person instruction for the first time in over 500 days.
“Children like mine, whose lives are literally at risk if they catch the Delta variant, deserve better,” Shannon said. “No one’s choice to wear a mask is more important than my child’s right to live.”
Masks, along with other layered mitigation strategies schools and districts successfully implemented last school year, are necessary for continued in-person instruction for the 2021-2022 school year, Glass said.
“The people working and learning in our schools know how to do this,” he said. “They have proven that by using masking, in combination with several other COVID-19 mitigation efforts, our schools can stay open for in-person learning.”
Young added that there are several times throughout the school day when students can lower or remove their masks, including when they are outdoors.
In Kentucky, emergency regulations are for 270 days, but members of the KBE indicated they would call a special meeting and withdraw or amend the regulation based upon changes in guidance from state and national public health officials.
“It has never been the intent of this board to extend the face covering requirement any longer than is necessary to slow the spread of the virus and reduce the number of quarantine days that keep students out of school,” Young said.
Rep. David Hale, co-chair of the subcommittee, said he believes the decision on whether students need to wear masks should be kept at the local level.
“I am not anti-mask. I encourage people that want to wear a mask to do that, do it properly, do it correctly,” Hale said. “I am certainly not anti-vaccination. I believe that is one of the things we need to promote to get through this and to beat this. … I also believe that the local school boards, our local superintendents and those school boards especially that were elected into those positions, are the ones that we need to be listening to locally.”
Though the subcommittee found the regulation to be deficient, it was not repealed. It was sent to Gov. Andy Beshear, who upheld the board’s emergency regulation and indicated it would remain in effect.
“The Kentucky Board of Education and Kentucky Department of Education remain committed to protecting the health and safety of all students and to keeping in-person learning available,” Glass said following the hearing.
“Masking, in accordance with the advice of state and national public health organizations is an important part of that effort. We hold that the board’s emergency regulation was appropriate, within the board’s legal authority, and that the process followed to put it in place was sound. We all look forward to the day when these mitigation efforts become unnecessary.”