JCPS students return to in-person learning

JCPS students return to in-person learning. (WDRB file photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Four members of the seven-person Jefferson County Board of Education believe everyone should wear masks inside schools once the 2021-22 school year begins in August, though they differ on whether such a policy should be mandated or encouraged.

The school board is slated to determine Tuesday the masking policy of Jefferson County Public Schools, which currently requires unvaccinated teachers and staff to wear masks inside buildings and everyone to wear face coverings while on school buses during summer programming, for the start of the 2021-22 school year.

Renee Murphy, head of communications for JCPS, said Superintendent Marty Pollio would provide information to the board that aligns with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kentucky Department for Public Health ahead of the board’s decision when asked if he would provide a recommendation on the matter.

“The board will have that final say,” she said Thursday.

CDC and state guidance say unvaccinated students and staff should wear masks indoors and that districts could consider universal masking policies if, among other issues, enforcement and monitoring are difficult.

That caveat is part of the rationale behind board members Corrie Shull’s, Chris Kolb's, Linda Duncan’s and James Craig's support for a more expansive masking policy.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended universal masking for students and staff once schools reopen, and school districts throughout the country are contemplating how to handle masking policies. For instance, Atlanta Public Schools announced Thursday it would require students and staff to wear face coverings inside schools once the 2021-22 school year begins and North Carolina recently recommended schools continue requiring masks indoors for classes in kindergarten through eighth grade, according to reports.

Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday that he would discuss “difficult questions” this week with the Kentucky Department of Education regarding COVID-19 school recommendations.

“I see a whole lot of people gearing up because they want to have some fight about this, but the basic facts are if you want your kids to be in school every day of the next year, the only way to make sure that happens is to get them vaccinated or to make sure that there are other protections in place,” Beshear said.

Shull, who represents District 6, Kolb, the board's vice chairperson who represents District 2, and Craig, who represents District 3, said the district should require everyone inside schools to wear face coverings while Duncan, who represents District 5, believes JCPS should highly recommend everyone wear masks indoors.

Increasing COVID-19 caseloads across the U.S., thanks in large part to the more infectious delta variant, has Shull expecting another wave of coronavirus infections, and he noted that vaccines have not been approved for children younger than 12.

“You cannot police who is vaccinated and who is not vaccinated,” he said. “It’s on the honor system, and the truth is people who are unvaccinated, many of them don’t take COVID-19 seriously.”

Kolb said JCPS meets several criteria under the new CDC guidance for universal masking inside schools.

The agency says schools should consider requiring masks for everyone if, for example, districts cannot track the vaccination status of students and staff, their local communities experience an uptick in COVID-19 transmission, and staff and families indicate an unwillingness to return for in-person instruction without universal mask policies.

A universal mask mandate in JCPS "is the way that we have to go for now," he said Friday.

"Just practically, I don't see how we can ask our staff to remember or always have available to them who's vaccinated and who's not," Kolb said. "I fear that we'd be asking them to do an impossible job that would just add to their already heavy workload."

Duncan stopped short of supporting a universal mask mandate for JCPS in the 2021-22 school year, saying she could not back penalties like removing students who refuse to wear face coverings from classrooms as part of enforcing such a mandate. She noted that JCPS and other school districts had offered virtual instruction for students who did not want to wear masks during the 2020-21 school year.

She also cited liability concerns if COVID-19 infections and illnesses are linked to school operations. The Kentucky General Assembly passed a new law granting liability protections for schools, businesses and other entities during the coronavirus pandemic during this year’s legislative session.

“Masks should be highly recommended and expected, but mandating them with the penalty being exclusion, I’m not there,” Duncan said.

Though he worries about enforcing a mask policy in the 2021-22 school year, Craig says his main concern is with parents rather than students.

While he previously said he was unsure Thursday the extent to which JCPS students and staff should wear masks inside schools for the 2021-22 academic year, by Friday he said he supported requiring everyone to wear face coverings indoors "until the public health guidance changes."

Mask compliance last year “wasn’t a problem” other than isolated incidents that were often resolved with reminders from staff, he said.

“If a student sits down at the dinner table and is being told by their parents that their rights are being violated and that COVID is fake, perhaps compliance might be more problematic with that student on Monday morning than it would be otherwise,” Craig said Thursday. “That's the concern that seems to be popping up.”

Board member Joe Marshall, who represents District 4, said JCPS families can expect "some form of masking" in the upcoming school year.

"It's going to be a conversation around to what extent and what that looks like for us and what we're able to do," Marshall said. "I'm looking forward to the meeting. I think that we're dedicating the right amount of time to this so that we can get this right from the start."

Diane Porter, the board’s chairperson who represents District 1, and board member Sarah McIntosh, who represents District 7, are also considering their votes on the district's masking policy ahead of Tuesday's meeting.

“I hope that my vote will be for the best interests of the safety of everyone, our children, our staff and our families, and I think that having to receive a recommendation from the superintendent and having some conversations, some questions answered before we take the vote, I think that will be beneficial,” Porter said. “… The other thing that I look forward to is learning is how we will manage it after we take our vote, how our system will make it work for the good of our students and of our staff.”

“There are so many things to consider,” McIntosh said in a message to WDRB News. “I am taking my time with this decision and am not sure yet how I am going to vote.”

JCPS begins the 2021-22 school year Aug. 11.

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