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Bill that would ban mask mandates in Kentucky public schools, universities passes House committee

COVID-19 masks schools
Posted at 10:57 AM, Feb 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-15 18:41:39-05

FRANKFORT, Ky. (LEX 18) — The House Education Committee has passed a bill that would ban mandating face masks in public schools and universities.

Rep. Lynn Bechler said the bill, HB 51, would make wearing face masks optional in schools. The bill would also give parents the ability to opt-out of daycare mask requirements. The legislation states that a child care center's license cannot be revoked for refusing to require masks, and they cannot be penalized nor fined by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Lawmakers previously ended mask requirements at public schools statewide during September's special session. Republicans argued at the time that local school boards should ultimately make that decision. As a result, most of Kentucky's school districts chose to keep the mask requirement in place, but some districts said they'd drop the mandate and make mask-wearing optional should case numbers go down.

Now, many have reversed course as House Bill 51 aims to take that decision-making power away from the districts.

Bechler says the bill would give parents the right to decide for their children.

"We are empowering parents to decide whether or not their own kids wear a mask," said Rep. Bechler. "It’s a well-known fact a one size fits all approach does not work. The data shows us children are least likely to catch, spread or suffer from Covid-19, and keeping them masked has had little to no effect these last few years."

If Tuesday's small panel of committee members is indicative of how this bill will be received on the House floor, it may not have overwhelming support from Bechler's fellow Republicans.

"I respect their (school district officials) understanding of their school district, and their ability to do what's best for their district," said Rep. Adam Koenig from Kentucky's 69th District in northern Kentucky. Koenig voted "no" to moving the bill through committee.

Republican, C. Ed. Massey from the 66th District voted "yes" with a caveat; he wants to further the debate because he's not entirely sold on the bill.

"They're in their communities," he said of school officials, "they're duly elected officials, and they're the best people to make that decision," he continued before casting his vote.

State Rep. Killian Timoney from Fayette County/Lexington also voted "no." The Republican wore his mask during testimony. He feels the Fayette County Public School Board members should have the right to make this difficult choice as needed.

"All of the evidence about mask-wearing harm is anecdotal. What's not anecdotal is NTI being the detriment," he said of virtual learning should an outbreak of cases require the district to shift to that at any time.

Mr. Bechler, however, cited myriad physical and mental health problems that can be associated with mask-wearing and stressed that when a teacher is instructing the facial expression he/she makes are a critical part of absorbing the lesson.

"To not only understand the words but what the person speaking is trying to get across," he explained.

He later cited traditionally blue (Democratic) states for having eliminated their mask mandates.

"Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Oregon – none of them hotbeds for conservatism – all have announced an end to school mask mandates," Bechler stated.

The ACLU called HB 51 "unconstitutional."

The bill now moves to the full House for a vote.