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GOP lawmakers repudiate statewide school mask mandate

August 17, 2021 GMT
State Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a pediatrician, speaks during a mask mandate hearing, Tuesday morning, Aug. 17, 2021, at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. Alvarado also asked why KDE is following CDC guidelines. (Matt Stone/Courier Journal via AP)
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State Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a pediatrician, speaks during a mask mandate hearing, Tuesday morning, Aug. 17, 2021, at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. Alvarado also asked why KDE is following CDC guidelines. (Matt Stone/Courier Journal via AP)
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State Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a pediatrician, speaks during a mask mandate hearing, Tuesday morning, Aug. 17, 2021, at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. Alvarado also asked why KDE is following CDC guidelines. (Matt Stone/Courier Journal via AP)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican lawmakers repudiated a statewide school mask mandate Tuesday as the Democratic governor warned that the delta variant is sparking Kentucky’s worst COVID-19 outbreak, with more children getting infected and hospitals filling up with unvaccinated virus patients.

A GOP-led legislative panel found the school mask regulation — approved recently by the state school board — to be deficient. Lengthy testimony before the party-line vote reflected deep divisions among Kentuckians over mask mandates to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The panel’s action signaled the “intent of the legislature” but didn’t invalidate the regulation. It meant the regulation went to Gov. Andy Beshear for review. The governor responded quickly, stating in a letter later Tuesday that he determined the regulation is in effect, regardless of the committee’s finding. Beshear had already staked out his position, having signed a separate executive order last week requiring mask wearing in K-12 schools.

The legislative review came on the same day the state reported 3,276 new COVID-19 cases and eight more virus-related deaths. The rate of Kentuckians testing positive for the virus neared 12.5%.

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Beshear on Tuesday called it the state’s most severe escalation of cases since the pandemic began, saying it “ought to alarm everybody and get everybody on the same team to do the right thing.”

“This version of COVID, the delta variant, is hitting people harder, they are getting sicker and they are younger,” added Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s public health commissioner.

The governor warned that children are at greater risk from the fast-spreading delta variant. Virus cases among Kentucky children skyrocketed by more than 400% in the past month, and pediatric hospital admissions due to COVID-19 are at their highest total.

Children under age 12 aren’t eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.

“It is clear that unvaccinated, unmasked children are going to end up in quarantine and not be in school,” the governor said at a news conference as the legislative hearing continued. “Or worse, they end up with COVID. Or worse, they end up hospitalized.”

Lee County public schools in eastern Kentucky canceled classes for three days this week after several children and staff members contracted the virus.

Lawmakers heard competing arguments while reviewing the school masking regulation. Opponents of the mandate said it infringed on individual liberties and local decision-making. Supporters called it a necessary preventive step to protect the health of students and school staff.

If mask-wearing in schools was optional, “we would stand no fighting chance against COVID because some would choose comfort over safety,” Frankfort High School student Audrey Gilbert said in supporting the mandate.

Pragya Upreti, another student supporter who attends Lafayette High School in Lexington, said: “Prioritizing the health and safety of young people should not be rooted in politics, but instead guided by informed decision making.”

Some parents warned that removing masks in schools would especially pose a risk to medically fragile children at greater risk from COVID-19.

Rita Yates, who has grandchildren attending school in Lawrence County, said she considered it “abuse to send your children to school to breathe in a mask all day.”

Opponents also objected to a blanket approach to the school masking issue. Terri Conen, from rural McLean County, said imposing the same restrictions on rural areas as in cities was “ill-considered.” She called it “an overreach of power” by unelected members of the state school board.

Republican Rep. David Hale, a panel member, said locally elected school boards and superintendents should decide on masking policies for their schools.

Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, who voted against finding the school masking regulation deficient, referred to the meeting as “political theater.”

“This is about making sure our kids go to school and can stay in school,” she said of the mandate.

Asked about the committee hearing, Beshear told reporters: “This is what happens when politics runs over public health or common sense.” The governor added that individual liberty “does not exist to actively spread a deadly virus.”

Beshear reported an uptick in vaccinations, with more than 2.4 million Kentuckians having received at least one vaccine dose — 55% of the state’s population.

The governor warned the state is likely to have more COVID-19 patients hospitalized by the end of this week than at any point during the pandemic. Beshear said he’s not considering “any form of shutdown” or capacity restrictions in response to the virus surge, but said whether to reinstitute a statewide mask mandate is “under active consideration” as he monitors hospitalization rates.

“If we run out of (hospital) beds for people who are injured or sick or have a heart attack, don’t we have to do something ... to make sure we’ve got that capacity for everybody?” he said.

The legislative panel also found a regulation setting mask requirements in child care centers to be deficient. The governor said later Tuesday that he determined that regulation to also be in effect.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.