Kentucky Capitol Building

Pictured: the Capitol Annex building in Frankfort, Ky., on Jan. 4, 2021. 

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky public school districts could not enforce school mask mandates or require vaccination against or testing for COVID-19 in a bill passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

House Bill 51 cleared the lower chamber on a 56-35 vote. The legislation allows families to opt out of school mask mandates and any vaccination requirements enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic without providing documentation.

HB 51, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, would also prohibit the state from revoking or refusing child care centers’ licenses or certifications and from fining and penalizing them for not requiring facial coverings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Public universities also could not require masks, vaccinations or testing during the COVID-19 pandemic unless the property is for medical or dental services. Postsecondary institutions could also require facial coverings in health care programs or if needed to maintain integrity of clinical research.

The House’s action on HB 51 came the same day the Jefferson County Board of Education authorized Superintendent Marty Pollio to adjust the district's masking policy on a 4-3 vote as cases decline and new federal and state health guidance suggests easing masking and other requirements based on local coronavirus metrics.

Some lawmakers mentioned or alluded to Jefferson County Public Schools and its board in floor debate on HB 51. Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, said HB 51 allows families to decide whether their children should wear masks in schools and that “they’re pleading for us to allow them to make the best decisions for their kids.”

He mentioned the JCPS board’s one-vote decision to reject Pollio’s recommendation to reduce mandatory quarantines and isolations and end contact tracing based on updated public health guidance.

“My superintendent in JCPS made a recommendation to our board to go to the five-day quarantine rule, and the board rejected that not following the science, but following fear and a political agenda,” Nemes said. “When the local decision makers are out of line, it is incumbent, it is required for this body, the premiere policymaking body in the commonwealth to step in.”

Others worried that allowing families to avoid masking during future surges of COVID-19 could leave schools vulnerable to spreading coronavirus variants.

Rep. Lisa Willner, a Louisville Democrat who formerly served on the JCPS board, said medically fragile students could be “put in harm's way if this tool is taken away from our public schools.”

“Every single one of us in this room I'm willing to bet is ready for this to be over, but the fact is that it is not over, and why we would take away such a simple and useful tool in our public schools is simply beyond me,” she said.

HB 51 moves to the Senate for its consideration.

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