As fights over school mask policies once again grow contentious, the Jefferson County school board declined to make masks optional Tuesday evening.
At least three school board members said they would vote in favor of rolling back the district’s mask requirement during Tuesday’s school board meeting.
Masking was not on the board’s agenda, but board members can make motions to take votes mid-meeting. It takes four out of the seven board members to uphold a motion to take a vote on the agenda and to approve a policy.
School board member James Craig made a motion to add a discussion on encouraging masks while the county is in the red, rather than require them, to Tuesday's agenda.
It failed on a 3-4 vote. Craig, Linda Duncan and Sarah McIntosh — all who planned on voting in favor of a new policy — voted yes. Board chairwoman Diane Porter, vice chairman Corrie Shull and members Chris Kolb and Joe Marshall voted against the motion, stopping a discussion and an eventual vote on changing the mask policy.
The decision came less than an hour after Attorney General Daniel Cameron shared a letter he wrote to district leaders, pushing them to end the mask mandate. Cameron, a Republican running for governor, said his office is investigating if JCPS is allowed to institute such a mask policy.
Last year, state lawmakers decided local school districts are allowed to implement their own mask policies. That rule was not changed during the 2022 legislative session earlier this year. When asked about last year's state law, a spokeswoman for the AG's office noted "that authority is not limitless."
Under current district policy, masks are required on Jefferson County Public Schools property whenever the county is at the highest, or red, community level of COVID-19 spread.
The policy follows state and federal health guidance, but recent national data shows JCPS is one of only a handful of districts following that guidance.
Duncan recently said she didn’t realize the board policy she approved required masks, and felt they should be recommended. She told The Courier Journal she wanted to make a similar motion earlier this month, but held off on Craig’s urging.
McIntosh also supports shifting the policy. Out of dozens of messages she’s gotten from parents and teachers, she said only about five of them wanted to keep masking in place.
“We are in a very different place now than even six months ago,” McIntosh, a former teacher, said. “Vaccines are readily available for kids, and the long-term adverse impacts on student learning is becoming apparent.”
Other board members were undecided ahead of Tuesday's meeting. Kolb, one of the board’s biggest proponents of COVID-19 mitigation policies, previously said he wouldn’t answer a hypothetical question because the mask policy is not on the agenda.
Porter did not say how she would vote, but said she looks forward “to the discussion as we express constituent and school thoughts from each of our districts.”
Supporters of a mask-optional policy often point to the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations as a reason to drop the requirement. Just one-third of JCPS’ 95,000 students have at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Far fewer have gotten a booster shot.
The areas represented by board members who plan on voting to drop the mask requirement tend to have higher student vaccination rates than the areas represented by the other four board members, an analysis of district data suggests.
High-needs elementary schools in the West End and south Louisville are among the least vaccinated. Of the 10 schools with the lowest vaccination rates, half are represented by Porter. Another three are represented by Duncan, who plans on voting yes.
JCPS is in its fourth week of requiring masks as Jefferson County stays at the highest COVID-19 level.
Some vocal parents protested the return to masking ahead of the school year. A new teachers union survey shows just over half of teachers — 52% — oppose the mask requirement. More than a third support it. The level of opposition is lower than the initial survey, which had to be redone after some teachers feared the survey had been infiltrated by anti-maskers who are not in the union.
District leaders appeared hopeful that refreshed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would help them navigate a masking decision, but guidance released Thursday didn’t change mask rules for schools.
Craig called the new guidance “frustrating.”
“The majority of the community is against the mandate and requests the option to make their own decision,” he said in a Twitter thread Thursday. “My school board district is very clearly against the mandate and has made its opinions known to me clearly.”
Kolb tweeted a few hours later: “Pretty poor form to try to litigate life and death school board policies on Twitter. Jesus.”
Reach Olivia Krauth at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @oliviakrauth.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Push by JCPS board members to go mask-optional fails to get support