Kentucky politicians feud over governor’s school mask mandate

Published 9:54 pm Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Kentucky’s Democratic governor first tried a softer approach, recommending masks in schools as the delta variant sent coronavirus cases climbing. When the advice went unheeded in some school districts, he ordered that masks be worn as the surge worsened.

Gov. Andy Beshear issued the mask mandate Tuesday, as many Kentucky schools start the academic year. He said it’s needed to try to prevent virus outbreaks that would close schools. Without masks, children too young to receive the vaccine would be defenseless, he said.

The mandate applies in K-12 schools, childcare centers and preschools. It unleashed another torrent of Republican complaints and drew a quick challenge from the attorney general. The reaction among educators was mixed.

While some red-state governors attempt to block school districts or other local governments from requiring mask wearing to lower the COVID-19 risk, Kentucky’s situation offers a contrasting political dynamic.

“I’m going to have the courage to do what I know is right to protect our children,” Beshear said.

The reaction was swift in the mostly conservative Bluegrass State.

Republican House Speaker David Osborne accused Beshear of flouting community decision-making. Attorney General Daniel Cameron, another Republican, called the mask order an “unlawful exercise of power” and challenged the governor’s action in the state’s Supreme Court.

One school superintendent openly berated Beshear. In a voicemail call to parents, Science Hill Independent School District Superintendent Jimmy Dyehouse referred to the governor as a “liberal lunatic.” Beshear’s action, he said, means “the professional opinion of your superintendent doesn’t matter. The opinion of your school board doesn’t matter.” He said the district would comply with Beshear’s order, but hopes it’s overturned in court.

The Kentucky Education Association, a Beshear ally representing tens of thousands of educators, jumped to his defense. KEA President Eddie Campbell called masks “a simple, low-impact, essential precaution” to protect students, educators and families.

A student group said the governor’s mask order reflects guidance from public health officials.

“Despite what some have said about the negative effects of wearing a mask in school, public health experts tell us that masks are the least invasive way to protect students and ensure a return to the type of education experience we know and miss,” the Kentucky Student Voice Team said.

The wrangling over masks comes as the delta variant sparks waves of new cases. The state reported 2,961 new coronavirus infections and 14 more virus-related deaths Wednesday. Virus-related hospitalizations are escalating at an “alarming” rate, the governor said.

“It’s time to push the silliness aside; the facts are the facts, the truth is the truth,” Beshear said Wednesday about the attacks. “We are in a battle of life and death.”

For more than a year, Beshear waged an aggressive fight against the pandemic with restrictions on businesses and gatherings. He faced lawsuits, occasional protests and unsuccessful impeachment petitions. He even was hanged in effigy by armed protesters.

Beshear stood up to the backlash, saying his actions saved lives. He won one round in the state Supreme Court over whether he wielded constitutional authority to impose virus-related mandates. The high court is reviewing new GOP-backed laws meant to rein in those executive powers.

His new mandate expanded the issues before the court. Kentucky’s attorney general said Wednesday the mask order violated a lower court injunction and disregarded those laws meant to reset a governor’s executive powers.

“The court should remind the governor that the executive branch is but ‘one of the three partners in Kentucky state government,’” Cameron’s office said in seeking to block the mandate.

In a release, Cameron said if Beshear “believes that the science requires a statewide mask mandate for schools and childcare centers, then he needs to do what the law requires and work with the General Assembly to put the necessary health precautions in place.” Those laws were temporarily blocked by another lower-court judge pending the high court review.

Republican state Senate President Robert Stivers said the governor can call lawmakers into a special session if he “feels so strongly that action needs to be taken.” The House speaker said Beshear usurped the authority of schools boards to decide masking policy.

When lifting most remaining virus restrictions in June, Beshear was eager to shift attention to the state’s economic rebound. The virus’s resurgence pulled him back into pandemic management.

For weeks, he hedged about new mandates. Last month, he recommended everyone mask up in schools, but some districts ignored his advice and left it up to parents to decide. In recent days, though, many districts had been revising their mask-optional policies. But as virus cases and hospitalizations escalated, Beshear acted.

He said his mask order runs for at least 30 days.

And in a blunt message for unvaccinated Kentuckians, he said: “You won’t get your shot; you’re the reason that our kids are having to wear masks in school.”