ANDY BESHEAR - AP 6-10-2021.jpeg
FILE - Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks during a news conference, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Frankfort, Ky. Gov. Beshear on Thursday, June 24, 2021 dangled a $1,500 bonus meant to lure thousands of unemployed Kentuckians back to work, offering it as an alternative to an early cutoff of enhanced jobless benefits that Republicans and businesses blame for a workforce shortage. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP, Pool)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Gov. Andy Beshear has again required universal masking in public and private schools amid an escalation of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations because of the more infectious delta variant.

Beshear announced the new executive order, which will last 30 days and cover preschool and child care facilities for those 2 and older, during a Tuesday news conference.

His order could be renewed based on COVID-19 conditions, and he could reinstate his indoor mask mandate, which was in effect during the previous school year, if warranted, he said.

"This is how we make sure we protect our children, but this is also how we make sure that they stay in school," Beshear said.

Beshear, who also announced 2,500 new COVID-19 cases across Kentucky, had issued a new mask requirement for state government buildings effective July 29 and previously recommended that schools consider universal masking policies for the 2021-22 school year.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended requiring masks in schools for those who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine — with some caveats for universal masking — while the American Academy of Pediatrics supported requiring masks for everyone inside schools.

Beshear's directive comes a day before school districts like Jefferson County Public Schools begin the 2021-22 school year.

The Jefferson County Board of Education voted to require masks regardless of vaccination status for the upcoming school year, and several school districts have reconsidered optional mask policies as COVID-19 cases continue to increase and hundreds of students and staff entered quarantine after exposures.

Such reversals have drawn fierce opposition from some parents, and some Republican lawmakers voiced their concerns with the governor's executive order on social media.

"Once again, a ‘one size fits all approach’ is taken by this Gov & completely erodes local control decision making where local elected officials are listening to parents needs & wants while the Gov issues his ‘indoor mask mandate in schools’ EO while not wearing a mask himself," state Sen. Max Wise, a Campbellsville Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said on Twitter.

"Did anyone even speak at all to the psychological and educational harm to students wearing masks all day?," Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Crofton Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter. "I sure didn’t catch it if they did. So frustrating."

Chris Kolb, vice chairperson of the Jefferson County Board of Education and one of six board members who voted in favor of the JCPS mask mandate, responded with a profane tweet directed at Westerfield.

"Hard pass," Westerfield tweeted in response.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said his office received a copy of the order and will issue a court filing on Wednesday.

"As Kentucky's chief law officer, our office must ensure that the rule of law is upheld during this pandemic," Cameron said in a tweet. "This means protecting the law-making prerogative of the General Assembly and respecting the judicial power of our courts."

The Kentucky Board of Education is set to discuss and vote on an emergency regulation regarding face coverings in school facilities during a special meeting 11:30 a.m. Thursday. And Education Commissioner Jason Glass is set to discuss the proposed emergency regulation earlier Thursday with the Local Superintendents Advisory Council.

"Besides vaccinations (which our students under 12 are not yet eligible for), masking is one of the most effective virus mitigation strategies we can deploy," Glass said in a statement. "With strong and consistent precautions in place, Kentucky’s schools have proven that we can safely open for in-person instruction.

"The governor’s executive order and the Kentucky Board of Education’s pending emergency regulation to require masking both put the health and learning of Kentucky’s children first and I support them unconditionally."

Beshear touted support for mask requirements from health professionals, educators and business leaders during his news conference.

"We looked at the numbers in certain counties here in Kentucky and hundreds of students are now quarantined," Ashli Watts, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said during Tuesday's news conference. "That means hundreds of parents are now probably not going to be able to go to work for the next couple of weeks. This cycle cannot continue."

Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky's public health commissioner, said every public health department leader across the state backed the governor's latest directive on universal masking in schools.

Nearly every county in Kentucky is back in the state's "red zone" for COVID-19 transmission.

"This is the fastest and the steepest rise of the entire pandemic," Stack said of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

Dr. Scottie Day, physician in chief at Kentucky Children's Hospital, said COVID-19 hospitalizations for children have increased "week over week" recently and currently average about 200 per day across the U.S.

Children have typically not experienced the more severe health outcomes after contracting COVID-19 during the pandemic. The CDC reported 349 deaths linked to the coronavirus among those 17 and younger as of July 31, and two Kentuckians 19 or younger have died after contracting COVID-19, data show.

"Kids are not immortal, and it should be rare that a child would need to go to the hospital, so the fact that we've have a few hundred died is too many, way too many," Day said during Tuesday's news conference.

The Kentucky Education Association also backed Beshear's executive order mandating masks in schools.

"Requiring masks for all students is vital to help slow the spread of COVID-19 as schools reopen across the Commonwealth," KEA President Eddie Campbell said in a statement. "That is particularly true for students under age 12, who are not currently eligible for vaccination and are, therefore, among those most at risk for infection."

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) said its aware of Beshear's mask mandate for indoor school settings that directly impact sports.

"Throughout this pandemic, we have worked with everyone in education and public health to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and yet allow for the mental, physical and emotional benefits of sports," KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said in a statement. "Our member schools proved in the fall of 2020 that they can manage the situation and we expect this new mandate to be no different as we remain focused on participation opportunities for students."

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