LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools students and staff will need to wear masks to begin the school year regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status.
The Jefferson County Board of Education voted 6-0 on the new requirement for the 2021-22 school year, which begins Aug. 11, during a Tuesday board meeting. Board member Linda Duncan, who represents District 5, did not attend the meeting.
The vote followed passionate remarks from supporters and opponents of the district's proposed masking policy, which drew raucous cheers and jeers from a crowd of about 200 people gathered at Central High School.
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio recommended the directive Monday, the same day Gov. Andy Beshear urged schools to consider universal masking policies and, at minimum, require unvaccinated people to wear masks inside school buildings with the escalation of COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant.
"With the number of COVID cases growing and the potential for mass quarantines, that is the issue here," Pollio said. "The number of staff and students that we will have to quarantine if we do not take every step, our only hope of staying in school is that we implemented every mitigation strategy possible so our students stay in school."
"We must do everything to keep our students in school and to let them learn," he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidance Tuesday to recommend masks for everyone inside schools regardless of their vaccination status. The agency had previously recommended masks for those who had not received vaccines, which are available for anyone 12 and older, with some caveats for considering universal masking policies in schools.
Pollio said based on past experience, he expects the Kentucky Department for Public Health will revise its COVID-19 guidance for schools to match the CDC's latest recommendations.
Other school districts are grappling with masking policies as the beginning of the 2021-22 school year approaches, the third academic year held during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some, like Oldham County Schools, have made masks optional for students and staff.
Most JCPS board members expressed support for a universal masking policy ahead of Tuesday’s board meeting, which drew praise and condemnation from families before the decision had even been made.
"The overwhelming evidence in support of keeping students in your classrooms as safely as possible is to maintain universal masking, and masks are only a piece of this evidence-based approach," said Tiffany Calvert, who identified herself as a University of Louisville professor and JCPS parent.
"Give us our rights as parents because we're in America and we're free," said Debbie Robbins, who identified herself as a JCPS parent. "I'm asking you respectfully tonight: You need to resign."
Supporters of the district's proposed mask policy, which had not been approved by the board before members received public comments, who addressed board members cited the prevalence of the more infectious COVID-19 delta variant in Kentucky and throughout the U.S.
Requiring masks regardless of vaccination status will help limit the spread of the more contagious version of COVID-19 in schools, they said.
Nearly 3,000 new COVID-19 cases have been identified among those 19 and younger in Kentucky in July per state data, a 4% increase compared to the 2.7% growth in overall coronavirus cases across the state. Case among those 19 and younger represent nearly a quarter of the 12,552 new COVID-19 cases identified in Kentucky in July as of Tuesday.
Opponents of the masking policy at Kentucky's largest school district of nearly 100,000 students voiced myriad concerns about requiring all students and staff to wear masks in schools during the upcoming school years.
Some questioned the effectiveness of masks, which the CDC and other agencies have made central to COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Others expressed concern about requiring children to wear masks when they have not experienced the most adverse affects of coronavirus infection, hospitalizations and deaths, to the same extent as older COVID-19 patients.
Kentucky has linked two deaths with COVID-19 among those 19 and younger throughout the pandemic, according to state data.
The audience at Tuesday's board meeting thinned by about half after Tuesday's public comment period, the board's first in more than a year because of restrictions in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, and before the actual vote.
Board member James Craig, who represents District 3, called the politicization of masking requirements in schools during the pandemic "appalling."
"It has gotten to the point where our superintendent's life has been put at risk because he's willing to stand up for the health and safety of the students and employees of this district," Craig said, referencing the recent threat made against Pollio outside of JCPS headquarters after the district implemented new mask protocols for summer programs.
"And I'm sick of it. Everybody needs to calm down."
Board member Corrie Shull, who represents District 6, also hoped that tensions regarding mask requirements would ease.
"We've heard a lot of really difficult things tonight, and I would implore the parents of this district regardless of your perspective about COVID-19 to be good neighbors and to ask your children to do the same," he said.
The board also approved a virtual learning option for elementary students as part of the district's back-to-school plans. The board previously authorized a virtual academy for middle and high school students.
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