A bill introduced during a special session of the Kentucky General Assembly this week would reverse a mask mandate for public schools statewide, put in place last month by the Kentucky Board of Education, and instead leave the decision up to local school districts.
Another bill could void the state's ability to issue mask mandates of any kind.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, called the Republican-dominated legislature back from recess Tuesday so lawmakers could develop their plans to address the recent resurgence in COVID-19 cases across the commonwealth, after lawmakers stripped him of his power to issue public health-related executive orders earlier this summer.
One of those orders had been a statewide mask mandate in all schools — public and private — which Beshear later canceled in light of a judge's ruling and the board of education's decision to issue its own policy on masks for public districts.
Early in the pandemic, Beshear had ordered all indoor public spaces to require masks, a mandate he lifted in the spring as more and more Kentuckians received a COVID vaccine and cases began to diminish.
Now, it's up to lawmakers — not the governor — to decide how mask mandates can be issued.
Senate Bill 1 would make the board of education's mask order unenforceable within days of going into effect and would provide for up to 20 days of remote instruction in the event of an outbreak. It would also call on the state's department of public health to develop a "test to stay" program to cut down on quarantines.
Another bill in the State House would remove any state agency or authority's ability to issue any kind of mask mandate.
Supporters of the bill say local authorities are better equipped to assess the spread of the virus in their area and whether quarantining or remote learning are necessary.
"You will see more control returned locally," said State Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill. "You will see more emphasis on initiatives to help obtain compliance through positive reinforcement rather than necessarily shutting things down arbitrarily."
Others, like Kentucky's 2021 Teacher of the Year, Donnie Pierce, of Fayette County, say the local approach doesn't go far enough to keep students safe.
"I want to make sure that every student and staff member in Kentucky is kept safe," Pierce said. "Right now, masks and, if you are able to, get vaccinated — it's really the fastest and best way to do that."
Beshear acknowledged the new limits on his executive power but held by his conviction that masks are a powerful tool to help prevent the spread of viruses like COVID-19.
"Now, I think that's going to be a big debate, and ultimately that's going to be decided by the legislature," he said during a news conference Tuesday. "I will do my best with whichever tools we have, but I think any health care professional would say, 'When people mask, you reduce the spread of the virus.'"
The General Assembly was scheduled to reconvene and continue talks Wednesday morning.