Beshear defends mask mandate for Kentucky schools
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Any local education officials choosing to defy masking requirements in schools will be “held accountable” if their students or staff get infected as the fast-spreading delta variant drives up COVID-19 cases, Kentucky’s governor said Thursday.
Gov. Andy Beshear also praised the state school board for backing up his statewide school mask mandate with an emergency regulation requiring anyone inside a public K-12 school to wear a mask.
The Democratic governor warned about the pace of new coronavirus infections, with statewide daily cases surging from about 200 a month ago to nearly 3,000 on Wednesday.
Beshear responded to the surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations this week by signing an executive order requiring indoor mask wearing in K-12 Kentucky schools, regardless of vaccination status. The requirement also applies to child care and pre-kindergarten programs.
His executive action came after some Kentucky school districts left it up to parents to decide whether their children should mask up. Beshear’s mask mandate is being challenged by Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Grumbling about the mandate has surfaced in some districts.
“Every school system, you need to be following this,” the governor said at a news conference. “Those that are trying to find a way out, just remember you’re facing the same COVID as everybody else.”
He said a refusal to comply would ignore recommendations from public health officials, his executive order and the regulation approved Thursday by the Kentucky Board of Education.
“When someone gets hurt, and they will, if you’re refusing to do the right thing, good luck,” Beshear said. “I think you’ll be held accountable.”
Beshear said he waited until this week to sign the masking order because he wanted to give local school leaders the “chance to do the right thing.” Many districts opened the academic year this week. Several dozen districts took the action to require masking up in schools without a state mandate.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky Board of Education weighed in on the polarizing issue Thursday.
The board approved the mask regulation for public schools. The regulation could potentially extend until next spring if the COVID-19 outbreak doesn’t improve.
“They stood up for the safety of kids,” Beshear said.
The board indicated it would convene a special meeting to withdraw or amend the regulation based on changes in guidance from state and national public health officials.
Meanwhile, the governor pushed back at Cameron’s attempt to block his masking executive order. The attorney general called the order an “unlawful exercise of power” and challenged it in the state’s Supreme Court. It continued Cameron’s efforts to invalidate the governor’s virus-related actions.
Beshear said mask wearing is needed to try to prevent virus outbreaks that would close schools. Without masks, children too young to receive the vaccine would be defenseless, he said. Virus-related cases and hospitalizations are rising among children because of the delta variant.
“If he wins, we’re having a statewide chicken pox party,” Beshear said of Cameron’s effort to block the masking order. “That’s his award if he wins.”
The governor bemoaned the divisiveness of the masking issue, saying so much of the media coverage has turned into: “’Andy Beshear says this, but Republican leader Y says that.’”
“That doesn’t help us, right?” the governor said. “That just makes it red or blue. And it shouldn’t be red or blue. It’s life or death.”
But he also responded aggressively to Republican criticism of his schoolhouse mask order.
“Those that are criticizing, none of them talk about how serious the virus is,” he said. “None of them are talking about how serious the delta variant is. None of them are talking about hospitalizations, and none of them, when they get a microphone, are saying ’please ... get vaccinated. That means they’re sowing at least misinformation or confusion.”
Kentucky reported 2,713 coronavirus cases and six new virus-related deaths on Thursday. The test positivity rate rose slight from 11.22% to 11.57%. Some 1,371 Kentuckians are hospitalized with COVID-19, up 44 from Wednesday.