Madison County students will not be required to wear masks while indoors when they return to school later this month, according to the school system's Return to School Plan released on Monday.
However, Madison County Schools Spokesperson Erin Stewart said the school district is "recommending and encouraging" students and staff to wear masks.
While masks are not required in the classroom, students and staff will be required to wear a mask on school buses.
Stewart said the decision was due to the Center for Disease Control mandate, which requires travelers to wear a mask while using public transportation.
"The CDC has issued that requirement, and we want to be compliant. The CDC classifies public school transportation as public transportation, and so we fall under that category," Stewart explained.
Stewart also noted social distancing on buses could get complicated with nearly every student in the district returning to a regular school schedule.
"It wasn't that difficult when we had a hybrid schedule, but this year where everyone is expected to attend full-time, it could get tricky," Stewart noted. "Riding a school bus is a choice. Parents can choose to take their children to school if they feel more comfortable doing so. However, attending school is mandatory."
The school system said they created the Return to School Plan based on the Kentucky Department of Public Health's guidance on the return of K-12 schools.
Gov. Andy Beshear last week sent a clear message to schools when he strongly recommended schools require masks for all unvaccinated students and adults and encouraged a universal policy. However, he stopped short of issuing an order.
Beshear's recommendations mirror new guidance released by the CDC last week.
The governor said all unvaccinated students and adults should wear masks in classrooms and other indoor school settings. He said schools should require all students under the age of 12 to wear masks in classrooms. Those students are not yet eligible for vaccines.
It's not a mandate, however, Beshear said there would be consequences if schools don't follow suit.
"Number 1, you're going to have a lot of kids in quarantine. Number 2, you're going to forfeit a lot of your sports games, your matches," he said. "Number 3, the more people that get COVID, even young, the more likelihood there is that one of them gets hurt."
Madison County's Return to School Plan noted the school system plans to continue to promote vaccination for all eligible individuals, including providing additional opportunities for vaccinations.
Stewart said the school system believes "a large percentage" of school staff and students have been vaccinated.
The school system will still practice physical distancing of at least three feet between students in classrooms "to the extent that it does not negatively impact instructional practices," according to the school plan.
School officials are "recommending" physical distancing of at least six feet between unvaccinated students, teachers, and staff.
According to the school plan, the school system will continue mitigation practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by utilizing pods, teaching and reinforcing frequent handwashing, providing ventilation, regular cleaning and sanitization of high touch areas, ensuring sick individuals stay home, ensuring positive COVID-19 cases self-isolate, directing sick individuals to testing opportunities, and working closely with the health department on contact tracing and investigation.
A release from the school said as students return to school, the district wants to "leave masking as a personal choice as long as attendance remains strong."
"We want people to do what they feel most comfortable doing and be in the best environment they can be for learning. We want to keep in-person learning going as much as possible," Stewart said.
The spokesperson said the district felt strongly the school year should start with the recommendation to wear masks as it is currently an option for schools.
"We didn't have that option last year. We are trying to do what's best and most comfortable for everyone," Stewart said.
The school system is also discussing a different approach to how they will handle community COVID-19 case numbers.
Stewart said the school systems will be monitoring community transmission again this year but are leaning toward making decisions based on COVID-19 case information from within the district's schools.
"We want to make decisions on what is actually happening in our school buildings. We will be monitoring attendance rates for all our schools closely and the rates of COVID-19 quarantines and positive cases from students and staff," Stewart said.
It is a more targeted approach, the spokesperson said, which would allow the district to make changes at specific schools without making a blanket mandate for other schools.
"As we move through the school year and we see one school affected by COVID more significantly, we might require mask for that school, but not others that are not seeing a lot of positive cases or quarantine numbers," Stewart said.
Stewart said the new approach is based on school data from last year.
If an outbreak were to happen at a particular school, Stewart said the school is discussing the option to close the school for a few days instead of requiring all students district-wide to miss out on instructional days.
"It would be similar to a snow day for that school," Stewart said. "We lost so much in-person instruction; we just want to make sure we can keep our students in school as much as possible in a safe environment."
The school currently does not have a virtual contingency plan in place, Stewart said. However, there is a virtual-learning option for students who do not wish to return for in-person learning. The option is available on a semester-by-semester basis.
Stewart said the district's Return to School Plan is an effort to give students the most normal learning experience possible.
However, it could also change.
"With the Delta variant of COVID-19, we really don't know what could happen," Stewart said. "As we move through the school year, we might have to switch to a mask requirement or make other changes. We are committed to doing our best to keep everyone safe."
Stewart said the school system also plans to implement a COVID-19 dashboard on its website to keep parents, students, staff, and the community informed.
A more comprehensive plan will be released near the beginning of school, Madison County school administrators said.
Stewart encouraged parents and students to check the Madison County School System's website, social media pages and download the mobile application to stay updated on school releases.
Stewart said the school system feels "better armed" and prepared this school year.
"You never know what is going to happen, but we feel better prepared this school year to make decisions and figure out the best approach for the overall school population," Stewart said.
The entire Return to School Plan can be found at www.madison.kyschools.us.