Kentucky governor orders masks in schools as virus surges
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Masking up in Kentucky schools was mandated by Gov. Andy Beshear on Tuesday as the fast-spreading delta variant causes waves of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
The new executive action requiring indoor mask wearing applies to K-12 Kentucky schools, regardless of vaccination status for COVID-19, the Democratic governor said. The requirement also applies to child care and pre-kindergarten programs across Kentucky, he said.
“We are to the point where we cannot allow our kids to go into these buildings unprotected, unvaccinated and face this delta variant,” Beshear said. “We have already seen ... that our kids will not stay in school, they will not get in-person learning. We will have massive quarantines.”
Beshear said he wants to avoid what happened last academic year, when schools shifted to distance learning due to the pandemic. The number of children infected with the virus has risen sharply amid the delta variant outbreak. Children under age 12 aren’t eligible for the coronavirus vaccine. Without requiring masks, they would be defenseless against the virus, the governor said.
“We would be sending them to the deadliest version of a chicken pox party imaginable by sitting them in a classroom every single day without a mask, without being vaccinated, facing the delta variant,” Beshear said at a news conference.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass said mask requirements give Kentucky schools the best chance to safely return to full-time, in-person learning this fall.
At Frankfort Independent Schools, the “small sacrifice and commitment” to wear masks has “opened up the world of opportunities for our students to be successful during in-person school,” said Superintendent Houston Barber. Frankfort Independent has been in school since Aug. 2 and has had no spread of COVID-19 cases during that time, Barber said.
Beshear’s masking order comes as Kentucky struggles with its worst virus surge since the pandemic began. He reported 2,500 new virus cases Tuesday — the highest one-day total since January — and seven virus-related deaths. The state’s test positivity rate surpassed 11%. Its virus-related death toll is approaching 7,400 and it surpassed 500,000 COVID-19 cases Monday.
Meanwhile, surging hospitalization rates are “absolutely alarming,” the governor said. Virus-related hospitalizations statewide shot up 43% and admissions to intensive care units by 32% in the first week of August, said Dr. Steven Stack, the state’s public health commissioner. On Tuesday, 1,251 virus patients were hospitalized in Kentucky, including 339 ICU patients, the state said.
“If we don’t do this right, we don’t do our part, our hospitals get overrun,” Beshear said.
Last month, the governor recommended that school districts require mask-wearing in schools to minimize the risk of disruptions from the virus. Non-compliance in many districts — plus the rising virus cases and hospitalizations — spurred Beshear to impose the schoolhouse mask mandate.
Asked if he’s confident that local school administrators and teachers will enforce the mandate, Beshear replied: “If they care one lick about their kids, they certainly will.”
Most of the Bluegrass State is in the red zone — signaling a severe level of community spread — while vaccination rates continue to only inch upward.
Beshear had a blunt message for the unvaccinated: “If you hate all the steps that we have to take -- you hate wearing a mask — get your shot. If you’re not getting your shot, you’re the reason we might have to put back on a mask. You won’t get your shot, you’re the reason that our kids are having to wear masks in school.”
Beshear said his mask order for schools follows federal guidance and will continue for 30 days. Whether it’s extended will depend on the level of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, he said.
The governor didn’t rule out expanding the mask mandate if the situation worsens.
“We’re going to continue to look at this surge in making decisions about what’s next,” he said. “Certainly, we won’t be afraid, if necessary, to institute a statewide mask mandate for those indoors, outside of the home.”
The governor vowed that the state’s economy “is going to stay open.” Beshear ended most pandemic-related restrictions in June. He has trumpeted the state’s economic resurgence in recent months while attending a series of jobs announcements.
“I’m committed to no shutdowns,” he said. “I’m committed to not having to roll back capacity.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.