Legislation passed this week during a special session of the General Assembly which made a statewide mask mandate from the Kentucky Department of Education null and void.

Legislators removed the state board’s ability to make the call and put the decision on the shoulders of each individual superintendent and board of education.

The statewide mask mandate is no longer in effect after five business days. However, masks likely aren’t going anywhere for most if not all local students.

Superintendents and boards in the area have to make the choice. Some already have, others meet early next week with their board to decide whether the districts will keep students and staff masked for the time being.

Ashland, Carter County, Raceland and Russell have all decided the mask mandate won’t change.

“The masks, whether we like those masks or not, have been a major factor in keeping kids in school, saving us from having to quarantine large numbers of students,” said Raceland-Worthington Schools Superintendent Larry Coldiron.

The district has 20 students in quarantine at the moment with about five students positive for COVID-19. Coldiron credits the low number to proper protocols and the students’ and staff members’ willingness to comply with regulations.

“I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of a mask, but if we’re going to keep kids in school I believe that is something we’re going to have to look at and try to keep in place,” said Coldiron.

Ashland Superintendent Sean Howard was quick and to the point when asked about masks.

"Ashland will continue with a mask mandate,” said Howard.

Superintendents are not making these decisions in a vacuum, others do have say and input.

“We did survey our staff and we’ve had some also local health officials and medical doctors input,” said Greenup County Schools Superintendent Traysea Moresea. “We’re looking at the data from the health department and we realized that only 41% of Greenup County is vaccinated. We also know that none of our students at the elementary level would be eligible for vaccines because they are not 12. And so, I am confident that when my board meets next week, they will make the right decision to continue on with masks.”

The goal is simple, keep students in school. Superintendents are trying to do all they can to keep students from another year like last school year. They understand the hardship.

“We feel that’s our best shot, and this is based on last year’s feedback,” said Russell Schools Superintendent Sean Horne. “The feedback that we received last year during all the virtual was that people were willing to do whatever it took to have face-to-face instruction. So, for us to have the best shot of having the majority of our kids in school, we’ve got to wear masks indoors.”

Horne added keeping a mask mandate will give the Russell Independent School District the best chance to protect the students and help keep them from spreading the virus to one another. The district will continue on and Horne is hopeful the district will continue to be in school.

“Everyone knows that this is what we gotta do,” said Horne. “And I'll be honest, and kudos to our kids and our parents and our teachers and everyone’s just kind of accepted that this is our best shot and we’re willing to do whatever we need to do to stay in.”

This doesn’t mean masks will stay forever. The boards of education and superintendents are working closely with the local health departments to monitor the situation.

“We have a few days to work with as we get our mask matrix designed, but we are looking at something that will go based off of the incident rate map in Kentucky so that it will be designed so that eventually we will be able to remove the masks, but it will be when it is safe to do so when incident rates are at a much, much lower number,” said Moresea.

Carter County Interim Superintendent Dr. Robert J. Bell said the district is in constant contact with the local health department to make the best decisions.

“We’re monitoring data every day,” said Bell. As of Friday, the district had 48 students positive out of 4,118 total students. The number in quarantine totaled 105. The district had more than 300 students in quarantine and positive when it decided to take a week of NTI in the final days of August.

Carter has six teachers or staff positive cases out of 700 and five additional in quarantine.

“We at the present time are going to continue to (mandate masks) to see where we go. There’s no stopping, there’s no starting, we are just continuing on,” said Bell “We at this time are going to continue our mask mandate.”

Ashland has been out of school for the last week and returns Monday along with the addition of a virtual option for students who wish to opt in. More information will be coming from the district next week as students return to classes.

Boyd’s 412 students positive or in quarantine will close the district until Mon. Sept. 20. Boyd County Superintendent Bill Boblett said he will meet with the board of education next week and they will make an informed decision and let parents know.

The NTI days offer additional flexibility, which is helpful, but not enough for some.

“I applaud that the governor brought them in for special session to try to get some relief for our COVID-19 situation, I do not feel like the legislature went far enough in relieving our needs. They gave us some help, but they also gave us more issues by removing the mask mandate,” said Moresea.

Moresea said Greenup is in need of a hybrid option to accommodate the number of students within the space of the school building. The 20 remote learning days allows a grade, building or class to go virtual for a set time without the whole district going virtual.

“That is more helpful because you can be more surgical about your decisions and precise,” said Moresea.

However, Moresea said the district needed more NTI days. The county school system is used to using those 10 NTI days for weather issues.

“The lack of more NTI days does not help us at all because, like you said, we already have the winter to plan for and that’s really what those are normally used for, not a pandemic,” said Moresea.

Boblett said Boyd County was also in need of more flexibility, though he is appreciative of any help.

“It’s not exactly what we were looking for, we were looking for a lot more flexibility and we didn’t receive that,” said Boblett. “What was given was helpful and I don’t deny that by no means … it doesn’t give us nearly the flexibility we had last year. We will manage. We will do our best.”

The legislation also opens the door for a “Test to Stay” program for the districts.

The superintendents all agree there isn’t enough information to begin the programs in their district, but they are researching the possibility.

“I was very intrigued by that opportunity,” said Boblett. “I think it’s another opportunity for students to stay in the class and staff, too.”

The program will allow students who are exposed to be tested for five days with a rapid test and each day they are negative they will be allowed in class rather than be placed in quarantine.

Moresea said the district is doing their research into companies and learning from other districts in Kentucky that have implemented the programs.

“It will be a big a task to take on because I believe parents will be a bit concerned about having their kids tested often, but then some may be very relieved to know that their child will be able to stay in school,” said Moresea. “So it will not be a mandatory concept, it would be a voluntary concept.”

Raceland’s Coldiron said the district isn’t at a point with numbers to need a program, but he isn’t writing the program off, just monitoring his district and needs.

Most districts will be hearing more in the coming days from the state level and from companies who offer the program.

“We’re in the preliminary stages of discussing that … we don’t have enough information or enough feeling either way to say we’re going to implement this in two weeks or we’re going to implement this the beginning of October,” said Horne. “We want to be open minded and if it means we can keep more kids in school versus home and it will help us some with our close contacts then that might be something we do.”

Less restrictiveness on staffing, especially in regard to bringing retirees in as substitutes and as drivers, allows for a larger pool of people for the district to pull from to fill positions.

(606) 326-2652 |

eporter@dailyindependent.com

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