Jess Clark

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things ConsideredHere & Now from WBURand NPR's Weekend Edition

Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Jess graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015 with a master's in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Jess Clark | WFPL

Several Kentucky school districts are doing away with mask mandates, citing a drop in coronavirus infections. But public health officials warn the decision could cause cases to spike again.

Warren County Public Schools, Campbellsville Independent Schools and Breckinridge County Schools are among a number of districts that plan to make masks optional in the next week or two. 

ONA News Agency/Wikimedia Commons

A Franklin County judge ruled Friday that the state’s new controversial tax-credit scholarship program violates the Kentucky Constitution. The ruling is a blow to advocates of K-12 school privatization.

The Republican-led legislature narrowly passed the Education Opportunity Account Program earlier this year. It would allow individuals and corporations to donate to a scholarship fund run by a nonprofit “account granting organization,” or AGO. The donor would receive a state tax credit of up to 97% in return. Low- and middle-income families in the state’s nine most populous counties would be able to apply to the AGO to use those funds for private school tuition.

The nonprofit public education advocacy group Council for Better Education sued to challenge the program in court in June, representing two Kentucky school districts and a group of parents.

Jess Clark | WFPL

The majority of Kentucky students say their teachers were there for them during remote learning, according to survey results the state released Wednesday along with its standardized test scores—the first since the pandemic began. But the survey data also shows older students didn’t always feel good about their learning.

When Kentucky students took their standardized tests last spring, many also took a survey about their experience in nontraditional instruction, or NTI. That’s what the state calls the remote learning setup schools moved to after the coronavirus pandemic forced school buildings to close.

State officials say responses show a majority of students felt supported by their schools during NTI.

“The results from the Opportunity to Learn survey show evidence that despite the unfortunate circumstances created by COVID-19, most students viewed their virtual learning as a positive experience,” a press release from the Kentucky Department of Education reads.

Lee Co. Schools

Lee County Elementary School, in eastern Kentucky, lost its third staff member to COVID-19 on Monday.

Lee County Schools Superintendent Sarah Wasson has confirmed that Lee County Elementary School guidance counselor Rhonda Estes died Monday afternoon of complications from COVID-19. She’d been with the district for more than three decades.

“Rhonda was a calming force with a positive outlook regardless of the circumstance. She encouraged and inspired all those she came in contact with. She did little things behind the scenes to help others and will be greatly missed by all who knew her,” Wasson wrote in an email to WFPL.

Jess Clark | WFPL

There is no partisanship on the U.S. Supreme Court — that’s the message Associate Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett wanted audience members to take away from her talk Sunday afternoon at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville. Barrett was the guest speaker for a 30th anniversary celebration for University of Louisville’s McConnell Center.

“My goal today is to convince you that the Court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks,” Barrett said before an audience of a couple hundred invited guests. She argued justices are driven by their judicial philosophies rather than partisan ideologies. 

Her comments come after a controversial Supreme Court ruling refusing to block a Texas law that prevents abortions after six weeks. 

Barrett described herself as an “originalist.”

J. Tyler Franklin

The Kentucky Department of Education is offering public school employees $100 to get the COVID-19 vaccine before Dec. 1. Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass said the goal is to get more school staff vaccinated.

“Part of it is recognizing and rewarding those staff members who did the right thing early on, and it acts as an incentive for those folks to get vaccinated who have not,” he said in a press call with reporters Friday.

The department will use federal funds to reimburse districts that choose to participate in the program. Glass said KDE has set aside $8.8 million of state federal coronavirus relief funding, enough to give each of Kentucky’s 88,000 school staff $100.

J. Tyler Franklin

Kentucky state lawmakers have passed a GOP bill that ends the statewide mask mandates for public schools and child care centers. 

Public health experts, including the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, say universal masking should be required in K-12 settings to curb the spread of COVID-19. But Republicans are siding with some conservatives who say mask mandates infringe on their First Amendment rights. Senate education committee chair Max Wise, a Republican from Campbellsville, said the bill gives decisions on masking to local school districts.

“They make that decision of what they think is best for their constituents and their communities,” Wise said.

A WFPL survey found nearly two-thirds of Kentucky school districts planned to keep masks optional before statewide mandates went into effect.

Democrats in both chambers balked at Republicans’ assertions they were protecting local control.

J. Tyler Franklin

State lawmakers working in a special session on a pandemic relief bill for public schools are struggling to build consensus on how much flexibility districts should have in moving to remote learning. 

Republican leaders in both chambers have moved bills through committees that give districts 20 remote learning days, in addition to the 10 non-traditional instruction days they already have. The bills would also end the statewide mask mandate for schools and childcare centers, create a “test-to-stay” strategy and make it easier to hire substitute teachers.

Under the provision, districts could use 20 days to send a school, a group of students or a class into remote instruction—but not the entire district. 

Democrats, and some Republicans, worry 20 days won’t be enough.

Ryland Barton

A Republican-led committee of state senators gave the greenlight Tuesday to a bill that would end statewide mask mandates for public schools and childcare centers. 

Supporters of the measure say it should be up to individual school districts and parents whether to send children to school in a mask. Opponents, including Democrats on the Senate Education Committee, point to guidance from health experts that universal masking is needed to curb the rapid spread of the delta variant of COVID-19.

The proposal is part of a larger education-related bill lawmakers are considering during a special legislative session to respond to the pandemic. Gov. Andy Beshear called the session after a state supreme court decision stripped many emergency powers from the Democratic governor and put them in the hands of the Republican-led legislature. 

The proposed legislation, known as Senate Bill 1, would end the Kentucky Department of Public Health’s mask requirement for childcare centers, as well as the Kentucky Department of Education’s mask mandate for K-12 public schools. School districts would have five days from the bill’s effective date to craft their own mask mandates, if they wish.

Lee Co. Schools

A Lee County Schools instructional assistant died of COVID-19 over the weekend, and three more district staff are hospitalized with the virus. 

District leaders say Lee County Elementary School instructional assistant Heather Antle died Sunday of COVID-19. 

“Ms. Heather Antle…was a special lady who made a positive impact on our students and staff every day with her smile and energetic personality,” a message on the district’s Facebook page reads. “She helped anywhere she was needed, assisted with the archery team for years, and brought great joy to the students and staff that she worked with.”

Lee County Schools Superintendent Sarah Wasson confirmed Antle’s death was caused by coronavirus, and said three more staff members are sick enough to be in the hospital, due to COVID.

Jess Clark | WFPL

Democratic state lawmakers are calling on the federal government to act quickly to get vulnerable Afghans out of their country and into resettlement programs in Kentucky.

“The Afghan people who protected your sons and daughters, who provided us food, contractors, safe passage, information so we could stay safe, now require our support,” Rep. Pamela Stevenson (D-Louisville) said. 

Stevenson is a retired U.S. Airforce Colonel. 

“There’s no way that we can turn our back on a people that said, for 20 years, ‘I’ll risk my life for the promise of America, and I’m not American,’” Stevenson said.

Lawmakers and leaders of refugee aid organizations called for swifter evacuation of Afghans who supported U.S. and ally operations over the last 20 years.

Facebook/Warren County Public Schools

A federal judge temporarily blocked Gov. Andy Beshear’s mask mandate for K-12 schools Thursday, saying the executive order violates laws passed by the General Assembly this spring that limited the governor’s emergency powers. 

“The Executive Branch cannot simply ignore laws passed by the duly-elected representatives of the citizens of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Therein lies tyranny,” Judge William Bertelsman wrote in his opinion.

The ruling means private schools will not have to require masks. However, a separate mask mandate from the Kentucky Department of Education means masks are still required in public schools.

Bertelsman sided with two Northern Kentucky parents, Jason and Karen Oswald, whose children attend St. Joseph Elementary School, a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Covington. The Oswalds claim Beshear violated their First Amendment right to freedom of religion when he instituted the mandate.

Mika Baumeister via Unsplash

A joint legislative committee labeled the state’s mask mandates for K-12 schools and childcare centers as “deficient” Tuesday, signaling intent from lawmakers to undo the requirements when they return to Frankfort in January.

The administrative regulation review subcommittee voted 5-2 along party lines to mark each mandate as deficient. The vote is largely symbolic, and the mandates will remain in place for now. 

Before the vote on the K-12 mask mandate, the committee gave Kentucky Board of Education chair Lu Young and Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass the opportunity to withdraw or defer the regulation. Both declined.

The votes followed hours of public testimony.

Stephanie Wolf

Gov. Andy Beshear says he’s signing a new executive order Tuesday that will require all students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools and preschools to wear a mask. 

The order will apply to both private and public schools, for everyone aged two and up.

“I’m gonna have the courage to do what I know is right,” Beshear said during Tuesday’s press briefing. “This is how we make sure we protect our children, but this is also how we make sure that they stay in school.”

In defending his decision, the governor pointed to rising hospitalizations due to the delta variant of COVID-19. Experts say the delta variant is causing more infection among children than the original COVID-19 virus and some children have ended up in the ICU. He also noted that several districts that started the school year without mandates have already had to institute mass quarantines.

Jess Clark | WFPL

This week, a wave of Kentucky school districts have announced they are making masks mandatory for all students and staff in indoor settings, a shift from previous plans that called for a recommendation only. The pivot comes amid a statewide surge of COVID-19 cases, including among school-aged children.

Local officials in Oldham County Schools, Jessamine County Schools, Warren County Public Schools, Marion County Public Schools and Bullitt County Public Schools all announced Monday or Tuesday that masks would be mandatory, rather than recommended, in their buildings.

“It was difficult,” Bullitt County Board of Education chair Debby Atherton said of the decision, noting some parents called her upset to say they want to have a choice of whether or not to mask their child. Mask mandates have become highly politicized, with some conservatives saying they are an affront to their personal freedom.