The Jackson County Board of Education held a special meeting last Thursday. A large crowd was in attendance including teachers, school administrators, students, bus drivers and parents as well as medical and health care professionals. Most were there with concern regarding an agenda item where the board was seeking approval to update the JCPS Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan for the 2021-2022 School Year. Of particular interest was how the school system would address the issue of facial coverings (masks). The Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation that effectively stripped Governor Beshear and the Kentucky State Board of Education of their authority to mandate the use of universal masking. Instead, the General Assembly delegated the decision to each school district. 

Three medical/healthcare professionals spoke during the public comment section provided at the beginning of the meeting: Dr. Samantha Hays (McKee Medical Clinic & Annville Medical Clinic), Dr. Jeremy Baker (AdventHealth Manchester), and Christi Green (Public Health Director, Cumberland Valley District Health Department (CVDHD) covering Jackson, Clay, and Rockcastle Counties). All three medical professionals advocated for the ongoing use of facial coverings/masks and vaccination as part of a multilayered approach to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They all recognized that as preventative medicine masks are not 100% effective; however, they have been demonstrated and proven to provide a level of protection to reduce transmission rates. 

Ms. Green spoke with great experience saying that she and her office have been involved with approximate 2,000 COVID-19 cases in Jackson County including each of the 42 total COVID 19 - related deaths in the county. The CVDHD has been involved in over 9,000 for the entire three county region.  Each of these cases required contact tracing which allowed the health department to evaluate cases “where masks were being worn” to cases “where masks were not being worn”. “I can tell you that, based on our observations, masks really make a difference,” Green said. “They are not 100% but they make a real difference, especially when used in a multilayered approach involving social distancing and effective hygiene. These steps together with vaccination are the best tools we have available to keep viral transmission minimized. Currently, Jackson County is in the bottom five counties in terms of vaccination rate with only 33% of the eligible population being fully vaccinated.  Jackson County has a high rate of infection and also a high mortality rate for such a small county.”

Dr. Baker spoke to the audience and relayed just how stressed the hospital system has become due to increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients. Make-shift ICU rooms are being created to handle the patient volume of those they are intensely ill due to COVID. “We are getting calls from as far away as Kansas for patients that are seeking a room,” Dr. Baker said. On Friday Governor Beshear reported 5,133 new coronavirus infections and 45 new deaths in Kentucky and said that for the second straight day, there are fewer than 100 ICU beds available across the entire state.

Ms. Green relayed that earlier that morning she had collaborated with the hospitals, the Emergency Medical Services, and other healthcare workers in the region to identify a diversion system that would allow ambulance drivers to know which hospitals were able to take a patient and which had no rooms available. It wastes precious time if an ambulance drives to a hospital that can’t accept the patient due to a lack of rooms. In many instances, ambulances are driving patients out of the region (even to other states) to get the medical attention they need due to the large number of COVID-19 patients overwhelming the hospitals.

Several parents understood that COVID-19 was a real threat but they were concerned about the potential impacts of wearing a mask on their children. School officials explained that masks are not required outdoors but only in the buildings. They also said that if a child needed a mask-break those would be arranged. One parent was concerned about the potential impact on their child’s adaptive immune system that the mask may cause. Dr. Baker responded to that concern by saying the child’s immune system would not be weakened by the wearing of a mask indoors. 

Other community members that spoke were concerned about the constitutional authority of the district to mandate the use of a mask indoors. However, with the passage of Senate Bill 1, the Kentucky General Assembly specifically delegated this authority to local school boards. 

JCHS Principal Brian Harris addressed the board saying that the high school currently has over 30 positive confirmed cases of COVID-19 but he felt these were mostly due to community spread with these individuals were infected outside of school where masks and other mitigative measures are less prevalent. “We successfully implemented a mask policy at the end of last year and was very effective in limiting contagion,” Harris said.  In addition, the use of masks reduces the number of people exposed to an infected person and, therefore, minimizes the number of required people quarantined. “The most important thing we can do is to keep students healthy and keep them in a chair receiving in-person instruction,” Harris said. “Without the use of masks to minimize risks associated with exposure we would have 200 students quarantined just today,” Harris said. Instead of using contact tracing and only quarantining a handful of exposed students and teachers because they were wearing masks we would be quarantining entire classes if no one was wearing a protective mask.”

Carol Cain, a bus driver for the school district also spoke. She informed the board and those present that the students on her bus had no problem wearing masks. “They accept the fact that there are rules that have to be followed,” she said. “They comply with no complaints.” The regulations regarding facial coverings on public transportation is controlled and regulated by the federal government; therefore, the school district does not have any local control over the mask requirement on buses.  

Superintendent Mike Smith provided the Board members with three options:

Option A: Students and staff will be required to wear a face covering while inside all JCPS school facilities.

Option B: Parents/Guardians will have the option/choice to decide if their student will wear a face covering while inside all JCPS school facilities. Staff would also have the option to wear or not wear a face covering while inside JCPS school facilities.

Option C: Determination to wear a face covering by students and staff will be based on the COVID-19 Mode of Instruction Metrics for K-12 Education. Based on the Incident Rate Map, a determination will be made each Thursday for the status of the upcoming week. Jackson County Public Schools will require everyone ages 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a face covering while inside a school building when our community transmission rate is in the RED or ORANGE zone. If our community transmission rate is in the YELLOW or GREEN zone, regardless of vaccination status, Jackson County Public Schools would recommend that

face coverings be worn by students and staff, but are not required. Notification will be provided each Thursday concerning the status for the upcoming week.

The Board selected Option C. The school system and general public are familiar with the COVID-19 Mode of Instruction Metrics for K-12 Education as it was used last year to decide whether in-person instruction or athletic events would happen based on the current incident rate in the county. Most people have seen the map of Kentucky and noted which counties were in the Red Zone. The health department keeps record of how many new cases are confirmed each day in each county. The incident rate is determined based on the average number of new cases over a 7-day period and the incident rate is normalized to represent how many that number would equate to in a population of 100,000. This allows rates of infection in smaller counties like Jackson to be considered equally compared with infection rates in larger counties like Fayette and Jefferson. 

The decision made by the Jackson County Board of Education is consistent with the majority of decisions reached by school boards across the state. The Kentucky School Board Association reported, “As of 8 a.m. Friday, 96 percent of Kentucky's 171 school districts have announced they will continue to require all students, staff and visitors to wear masks now that SB1 is in effect eliminating the statewide mask mandate in Kentucky public schools.”

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