FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) – The Kentucky House voted Tuesday to give parents the power to opt out of school masking requirements for their children – just months after lawmakers handed school districts control over the contentious issue in the age of COVID-19.
Parents could choose “for any reason” to have their children go maskless at public schools.
The bill also would prohibit masking requirements at Kentucky’s public colleges, and child care centers could choose not to require masking. The House passed the measure 56-35 after a long debate, sending the proposal to the Senate. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers.
“This bill returns responsibility, and the power to take care of kids, to their parents,” Republican Rep. Jason Nemes said in touting the measure.
Opponents said the measure contradicts action taken just six months ago, when the legislature shifted masking decisions to local school boards.
They said it would put medically fragile students and their parents in a difficult situation, and would significantly weaken the ability of school districts to respond if COVID-19 cases surge again.
“What we’ve learned from this virus is that none of us are in control,” said Democratic Rep. Rachel Roberts. “I worry that we will have another surge in the fall, where masks would be a useful tool.”
The bill’s supporters questioned the effectiveness of mask mandates in schools. Many school districts across Kentucky already have lifted their mask-wearing requirements as COVID-19 cases have dropped consistently in recent weeks.
During the House debate, the measure’s lead sponsor, Republican Rep. Lynn Bechler, said: “Where the mask mandates are still in place, children wear masks in the morning, take them off for lunch where they are also sitting shoulder to shoulder with other unmasked children, and put the masks back on for class and assemblies. It makes no sense.”
“This legislation doesn’t outlaw mask wearing,” he added. “It simply makes mask wearing optional from preschool through college.”
Also under the measure, no child care center could be refused a license, have its license revoked or be subject to any fine for refusing to require mask wearing.
Bills stemming from the state’s two-year battle with the pandemic have been a recurring theme during the 2022 legislative session. Another virus-related bill surfaced in committee.
An effort to prevent COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Kentucky advanced Tuesday after a House committee reined in the bill’s reach to exclude private employers.
The measure was introduced in early January but made no headway for more than two months until the more limited version cleared the Republican-led House State Government Committee. The proposal heads next to the full House.
Republican Rep. Savannah Maddox, the bill’s lead sponsor, acknowledged on social media that provisions applying to private employers were “polarizing to a point that the bill had begun to languish.” Those provisions were removed from the substitute version approved by the committee.
The bill still applies to public colleges as well as local and state governments. It would bar them from requiring disclosure of a person’s coronavirus-related immunization status.
The measure would allow parents to opt out of a COVID-19 vaccine for their school-aged children on the basis of a “conscientious objection.” It also would prohibit vaccine passports.
“The intention is to create as broad protections as possible for Kentuckians to be able to decide for themselves whether or not to receive a vaccine,” Maddox told the committee.
Maddox has been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate next year.