Kentucky school superintendents were grappling with the issue of mask policies before Governor Andy Beshear issued an executive order on Tuesday mandating masks for all public schools in the commonwealth.
Prior to the governor's mandate, and only five days into the new school year, Superintendent Rob Clayton issued a mea culpa in announcing Warren County Public Schools would return to masks for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status.
“What we do know is that if we had started school with the face coverings, we could have reduced the number of quarantines," Clayton said at a news conference Tuesday.
Among the district’s 24 schools, more than 700 students and staff are currently quarantined due to possible exposure to someone with COVID-19. Clayton says that threatens his district's ability to continue holding in-person classes five days a week.
While many parents don’t want to return to virtual learning, othersare upset by the mask requirement and held a public show of frustration on Tuesday. Questioning the effectiveness of masks and touting their constitutional rights not to wear them, about a dozen parents debated outside the district’s central office. One protester held a sign reading, "Let Our Children Breathe."
Ashley Pierce waved a sign reading, "Say No to Masks." She has two children enrolled in Richpond Elementary and South Warren Middle School. She said it’s “cruel” to take away the sense of normalcy students have experienced in the opening week of the school year.
“Warren County Public Schools announced, I believe July 28, they would not mask mandate. Our kids got a sense of excitability to go back to school," Pierce said. "They did live some type of normalcy for five days and then you just jerk them around like they’re resilient. It’s time for parents to take a stand for their children. They’re not resilient anymore.”
Alone in the anti-mask crowd was Charmaine Forshee, a retired educator for WCPS. Her grandson attends Plano Elementary and has worn a mask since the first day of school when it was optional.
“As it turned out today, somebody sent a child who tested positive with COVID into the classroom and then the entire class had to be sent home," Forshee said. "When you have ignorant parents who do things like this, there has to be safety. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Mask opponents at the protest claimed there’s no scientific evidence confirming masks work in preventing the spread of airborne viruses. But Superintendent Clayton said in a news conference following the demonstration, that outside of vaccinations, masks are the school system’s best hope of keeping students in the classroom.
“We don’t know the degree of effectiveness in this mask as opposed to that mask, but here’s what we do know: if we have students and staff wearing masks properly, we can reduce the number of quarantines," Clayton said. "We know that because the CDC guidance is very clear. If an individual is three feet or further from a potential case, then they wouldn’t have to quarantine provided they were wearing a mask and it was being worn properly.”
Clayton said the decision to require universal masking was mostly based on the high number of quarantines and how fast variants are spreading compared to the original coronavirus.
Despite Clayton meeting with the group of protestors, parents remained steadfast in their opposition to masks. Ashley Pierce threatened to remove her kids from WCPS if the mandate isn’t repealed.
“For years and years, I’ve taught my kids not to bully or be bullied, and look at us being bullied. What am I supposed to look at my kids and say," asked Pierce? "We’re being bullied and told we have to do something we don’t agree with and that we don’t want to do.”
Hours later, Governor Beshear announced 2,500 new cases of COVID-19 and issued a mask mandate for all of Kentucky’s K-12 public schools.
Just over 50% of the state's adult population is at least partially vaccinated against the virus. Less than 34% of all eligible Kentucky children between ages 12 and 17 have received their first dose of a vaccine. Beshear said in a Tuesday news briefing that a return to a statewide mask mandate is possible if current trends continue.