FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- Gov. Andy Beshear issued "strong" recommendations Monday that Kentucky school districts consider requiring some form of masking for students in the upcoming 2021-22 school year.
The governor said school districts should consider requiring students and staff who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 and those younger than 12 — who are not yet eligible to for inoculations — to wear masks inside school buildings. That mirrors guidance recently issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kentucky Department for Public Health for school operations.
For districts that want to optimize the number of in-person learning days in the upcoming school year, Beshear said they should consider requiring all students and adults to wear masks indoors.
"Our priority isn't to do some red or blue thing or get involved in some ridiculous so-called culture war," he said. "Here's our priority: It's our kids, and it is having them in class every day."
Beshear stopped short of issuing a masking requirement for schools, but he said during his Monday news conference that he would be prepared to do so if COVID-19 spreads "out of control" in schools.
"We think that we are going to see enough volume and enough results to where that is not necessary because, again, these are education institutions and we now know the facts on this virus," he said. "... I'm not going to take anything off the table when it comes to the health of our people."
Jefferson County Public Schools is among districts that have yet to decide whether to require masks when schools open for the 2021-22 school year on Aug. 11. Some Kentucky school districts have made masks optional for students and staff as the start of the school year approaches.
After the governor unveiled his recommendations for the upcoming school year, Superintendent Marty Pollio's recommendation to require all students and staff to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status was added to Tuesday's Jefferson County Board of Education agenda.
Four out of seven board members previously told WDRB News that they want some form of universal masking for the upcoming school year.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged school districts to require universal masking inside schools, and CDC and state guidance also say districts should consider such measures under certain conditions, such as concerns about monitoring and enforcing masking among unvaccinated students and staff.
The growing push from JCPS leaders to require students and adults to wear masks comes as some urge Kentucky's largest school district to allow flexibility in whether students wear face coverings when classes begin for the upcoming school year.
"To mandate that children should now wear them is unacceptable and irresponsible," the group Let Them Learn in JCPS wrote in a Monday news release. "Members of Let Them Learn in JCPS have reached out to members of the JCPS board to express our perspective, and have been ridiculed, shamed, or ignored in writing."
Let Them Learn in JCPS said children are in low-risk categories, and state data show only two deaths among those up to age 19. Those residents have made up about 15% of COVID-19 cases during the pandemic.
The emergence of the more infectious delta variant of COVID-19 has Beshear and other administration officials concerned that Kentucky's current escalation in cases among all age groups is just beginning.
Dr. Steven Stack, the state's public health commissioner, said Kentucky's COVID-19 caseload and testing positivity rate have roughly quintupled since the beginning of July and that the state could exceed past surges because of the more infectious coronavirus strain "if this keeps up at this pace." Hospitalizations and ventilator usage have also jumped since the beginning of the month, he said.
Kentucky reported 5,662 new COVID-19 cases last week and most of those currently hospitalized have not been vaccinated, according to state data.
The delta variant may have viral loads "1,000 times higher" than previous strains of COVID-19, Stack said.
"That's not trivial. It's huge," he said. "We don't know what they'll do to people. There's already anecdotal stories about younger people being a higher proportion of the hospitalizations."
In an analysis of scientific studies published in early July, the CDC wrote that COVID-19 "transmission among students is relatively rare, particularly when prevention strategies are in place." Middle and high schools seemed to have higher COVID-19 transmission rates among students, according to the agency's analysis.
"Detection of cases in schools does not necessarily mean that transmission occurred in schools," the CDC wrote. "The majority of cases that are acquired in the community and are brought into a school setting result in limited spread inside schools when multiple layered prevention strategies are in place."
Beshear said there is evidence the delta variant spreads more aggressively among all age groups.
"Children don't get tested as much, and with the early versions of COVID, they didn't get sick or sick at all, which is changing," he said. "So how many kids may have had it before versus how many we're seeing now, it's hard to gauge."
Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass and Lu Young, chairperson of the Kentucky Board of Education, also voiced their support for Beshear's recommendations.
"I know that you're tired, and all of us want this to be behind us, but we need to call again upon your professionalism and dedication to continue many of those same mitigation efforts from this past spring to keep our schools open and safe for in-person learning," Glass said.
"You've already proven and shown what many thought was impossible in keeping schools open and keeping them safe. We're going to need that same effort once again going into this fall's reopening of schools."
Kentucky school districts and private school systems can join a new program for COVID-19 testing with $134 million from the federal government, Stack said.
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