A bill that would end Kentucky's school mask mandate was rescued late Wednesday evening, after it fell short of passage by one vote earlier in the day.
The House Education Committee initially rejected House Bill 1 on an 11-7 vote, with three members abstaining, early Wednesday morning. The legislation required 12 votes to pass.
Then, late Wednesday evening, the committee passed the same bill in a hastily scheduled meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes.
Another bill, Senate Bill 1, which mirrors HB 1, ran into no such roadblock and is moving through the senate after it passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, but was brought back Wednesday for further alterations and discussion.
HB 1, like SB 1, would overturn the Kentucky Board of Education’s emergency regulation requiring masks in public schools five days after it becomes law and prevent similar measures from being passed until June 1, 2023.
Lawmakers placed identical bills in both chambers in hopes of expediting the process by waiving required bill readings since the bills were identical.
SB 1, like HB 1, would make significant changes to the mask mandates in schools. SB 1 would overturn both Gov. Andy Beshear’s and the Kentucky Department of Education’s regulation which required the masking of children in kindergarten through twelfth grade. It also declared the regulation of children wearing masks in daycare centers as null and void.
Instead of the overarching regulations, SB 1 would leave the decision of masking up to the district’s school boards.
In August, the Madison County Board of Education vocally opposed the mask mandate Beshear and the KDE set forth during their Board of Education meeting.
Chair Lori Cobb read the statement at the conclusion of the meeting, which outlined the board’s reasons for not supporting the governor's executive order, which requires masks to be worn in schools.
“We maintain our position that it should be the parent’s choice in determining if their child should wear a mask,” Cobb read. “Like school districts, families are different, and only parents in consultation with their doctors should be making decisions regarding their child’s health.”
“We are charged with offering the tools necessary for parents to make the choice that is best for their child,” Cobb said as she read the board’s statement. “As a board, we are not in favor of the mask mandate handed down by the governor and the KBE. We do not agree with the overreach and maintain that local control is in the best interest of students. One size does not fit all with our 173 districts.
However, as school started and COVID-19 cases rose both in the county and within the Madison County Schools, the district sent out an unsigned letter to families that recommended students wear their masks.
As of Sept. 8, Madison County Schools’ COVID-19 dashboard showed 171 positive COVID-19 cases and 714 students quarantined.
The note explained the district is experiencing high numbers of students who have tested positive for COVID-19, with even higher numbers of students who are required to quarantine due to exposure.
“If you are eligible and your child is eligible, please consult a medical professional and consider being vaccinated,” the note said.
Senator Danny Carroll, District 2, explained his aye vote for SB 1 by saying the section of the bill which dealt with child care regulation was not consistent with what he recommended; however, it did put the decision at a local level.
“I much preferred the decision for a kid in childcare to wear a mask be left up to a parent,” Carroll said. However, he noted he supports the decisions of the local entities for masking.
Senator Reginald Thomas, District 13, disagreed with the removal of the mask mandate.
“I want to tell everyone about this virus,” Thomas began during the education committee. “This virus knows no borders. It doesn’t stop at the Taylor County Line; it doesn’t stop at the Fayette County line. It doesn’t stop at the Kentucky state border; it doesn’t stop at the United States border…. Now, as Kentucky legislators, we don’t vote just for our individual districts. We vote for what we think is best for Kentucky. As this virus can go all over ky, it's our duty, our moral responsibility, to try and protect all Kentuckians. The best way we can do that is to put imposed mandates and protections that apply to all Kentuckians. I will tell everyone listening today that masks work. The CDC has said that for well over 18 months now…. To not have protections that apply to all Kentuckians when this virus can spread anywhere and everywhere is just irresponsible.”
SB 1 also dealt with the rising need of schools for flexibility in how they deal with the possible need for virtual learning.
Districts are currently only provided with 10 NTI days for the year. As COVID-19 cases rise within schools and quarantining student numbers also rise, many schools in Kentucky have been forced to shut down already. 32 school districts of the 172 in Kentucky have shut down.
Berea Independent Schools is one of the districts which was forced to close due to high COVID-19 numbers. The school was closed from Aug. 31 to Sept. 6. However, they did not use NTI days. Instead, they used available “make-up” days.
"Because we only have 10, we know we're going to run into snow and everything else, so we know we're going to use those 10. And since it's just the beginning of this school year, we know one way or the other we're going to use them," Superintendent Diane Hatchett said when asked why the district did not use NTI days.
"The dangerous thing about limiting districts to 10 NTI days is we're dealing with a still-active pandemic which is now affecting children even more than it did last year," Erin Stewart, community education director for Madison County Schools said.
Stewart explained these 10 NTI days are the amount of NTI days given out in a "normal" school year for schools to teach students during inclement weather in the winter.
"When you add the pandemic and all that is going on, we know it won't be enough," Stewart said.
SB 1 aims to help lift the stress of so few NTI days by allowing schools to have 20 days of remote instruction. The superintendent would decide to assign students to remote learning of the schools. Under the bill, an entire district would no longer have to shut down. Instead, the superintendent could assign remote learning to a school, a grade, or a classroom. This would be an available power of the superintendent, under the bill, until Dec. 31, 2021. Students who are learning in remote instruction would be required to receive at least the minimum daily instruction time of six hours. The 10 NTI days would still be available to the districts as well.
Under SB 1, all staff would be required to work on-site during an NTI day. Districts would also be allowed to make up missed days by adding time to school days.
SB 1 would require the Department of Public Health to develop a COVID-19 “test to stay” model plan for schools which could be implemented to help minimize the impact of students and staff who are quarantined but non-symptomatic. The bill also requires a school district’s local health department to assist in implementing the “test to stay” model and COVID-19 plans for masking, quarantining, and contact tracing.
Senator Gerald Neal, District 33, voted no on the bill and said the flexibility provided was insufficient.
“… What I do like is there is a degree of flexibility which is being provided, and I think it is warranted, and I celebrate that,” Neal said. “… I don’t think it goes far enough.”
Senator Denise Harper Angel, District 35, echoed Neal’s sentiment.
“Although I do appreciate all the work and effort which has gone into this, I do not believe it goes far enough,” Angel said.
SB 1 also makes it easier for districts to find substitutes and teachers. One way in which it does this is by allowing retired teachers to return to work. The bill would also enable classified staff to teach without a certified staff member present.
“This is not baby bear's soup; it's not just right,” Senator Alice Kerr, District 12, said during her aye vote explanation. “And it's not going to be just right for everybody. But we have to do the things that will give us, as Kentuckians in this Commonwealth, those checks and balances.”
It is unclear what changes will be made to get either bill to a full vote and how the bills could shift on the floor. At least 18 amendments wait in the House and Senate to be considered.
The story will be updated as the legislature moves through the special held session.