FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- Legislation meant to nullify Kentucky’s mask mandate in schools and give school districts more flexibility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic passed the House Education Committee on Wednesday after previously falling one vote shy of advancing from the panel earlier in the day.
House Bill 1 passed on a 16-2 vote Wednesday after netting just 11 affirmative votes hours earlier. The legislation needed 12 votes to advance it to the House floor.
Republicans Shane Baker, Jennifer Decker and Felicia Rabourn joined Democrats Jeff Donohue, Charles Miller, Attica Scott and Lisa Willner in opposition while Democrat Tina Bojanowski and Republicans Killian Timoney and Richard White voted "pass" in the first round of voting Wednesday.
Baker, Bojanowski, Decker, Timoney and White later voted to advance HB 1 when lawmakers on the panel reconsidered their prior vote. Only Donohue and Scott voted against HB 1 a second time.
A companion bill with the same components as HB 1, Senate Bill 1, is moving through Senate after approval by the upper chamber's education committee.
HB 1, like SB 1, would overturn the Kentucky Board of Education’s emergency regulation requiring masks in public schools five days after it becomes law and prevent similar measures from being passed until June 1, 2023.
Reversing the state’s mask mandate drew criticism from Gov. Andy Beshear and Education Commissioner Jason Glass, who added Tuesday that SB 1 "does not go far enough in providing the flexibility in different school models" needed by school districts throughout Kentucky.
Some Democrats on the panel expressed similar reservations about abandoning a statewide mask requirement in public schools given the recent escalation of COVID-19 cases.
"I think the mask mandate removal is a mistake," Donohue, D-Fairdale, said during the first committee meeting. "I think we as leaders should make this decision."
Timoney, R-Lexington, said he was under the impression that lawmakers would set a "matrix" that would determine whether masking should be required in schools.
"If I don't ensure putting that in place, it's almost as if I'm admitting that COVID is not a significant issue, and I can't do that," he said.
HB 1 would require school districts to submit COVID-19 operational plans to the Kentucky Department of Education and publish those plans on their websites, and they would also be allotted 20 days to implement remote learning in particular schools, grades, classrooms or groups of students.
Those days would not count toward the 10 nontraditional instruction days given to districts by law, and HB 1 does not grant additional NTI days.
Some lawmakers said they would rather see the 20 remote learning days applied to individual schools rather than entire districts.
Bojanowski, D-Louisville, said the 20 remote learning days will work differently for small school districts like Anchorage Independent compared to their counterparts like Jefferson County Public Schools, the state's largest school district with more than 150 schools.
"A large district does not have the same flexibility that a smaller district would have, and that is my major concern about the remote instruction aspect of the bill," she said.
Banta, who presented HB 1, said she would like to consider such a proposal "just for fun."
"If you consider that for fun I do have an amendment that could address that," Bojanowski said.
Rep. C. Ed Massey, R-Hebron, said he would be open to allowing individual schools to take up to 20 remote learning days, but he noted that lawmakers would return to Frankfort in January and able to consider such proposals in next year's legislative session.
"I just think that people need to sit back and take a deep breath and understand right now we're trying to do a temporary fix to what could be a very long-term problem," he said.
Districts would get additional flexibility to fill classroom vacancies and find substitute teachers under HB 1.
Retired teachers and staff who retired by Aug. 1 could be hired back after one month of retirement until Jan. 15, and HB 1 increases the critical shortage program’s limit in the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System from 1 percent to 10 percent of active KTRS membership in school districts, matching changes made earlier Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee to SB 1.
Both panels also revised HB 1 and SB 1 to remove provisions on incentivizing COVID-19 vaccinations for students and staff after indicating districts can already take such steps.
Substitute teachers would be required to complete background checks and have 64 hours of college credit or a high school diploma and four years of relevant work experience, according to HB 1.
Classified staff can perform instructional duties without supervision from certified teachers for the 2021-22 school year, and superintendents can place new hires on probation after getting results of preliminary background checks, HB 1 says. The bill calls for Kentucky State Police and Cabinet for Health and Family Services to prioritize background checks for prospective school employees.
School districts can use either the 2018-19 or 2019-20 attendance data to determine state funding for the 2021-22 school year as has been allowed previously, and districts can also follow requirements to provide 1,062 instructional hours, according to HB 1, which waives the state requirement for schools to provide 170 instructional days.
Baker, R-Somerset, took issue with school districts basing their state funding on past attendance data because he said some of his constituents had pulled their children from public schools and paid for private school because of the state's mask mandate.
"To continue to send that money to the public school for no other reason than just to make sure that they're sustainable into the long term doesn't make sense to me," he said.
HB 1 also calls for the Kentucky Department for Public Health to develop a “test to stay” model program to allow districts to test asymptomatic students who have been exposed to those with COVID-19 and allow them to avoid quarantining if they test negative.
Wednesday marked the second day of the legislature's special session, which Beshear called in the aftermath of a recent Kentucky Supreme Court ruling that determined laws limiting gubernatorial powers during emergencies should go into effect while Beshear's lawsuit challenging their constitutionality moves through the courts.
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