FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Kentucky lawmakers, many not wearing masks, voted Thursday to scrap a statewide mask mandate in public schools and shifted masking decisions to local school boards, acting in a special session as the state's worst COVID-19 surge threatens to overwhelm hospitals.
The GOP-dominated legislature set education policies in response to disruptions caused by the virus, which has forced dozens of school districts to close classrooms. The masking provisions sparked emotional debate on the third and final day of the special session called by the Democratic governor to address the pandemic.
Gov. Andy Beshear responded late Thursday night by vetoing portions of the bill nullifying mask mandates for K-12 public schools and child-care centers. Republican lawmakers quickly overrode his vetoes, completing their work to end statewide mask mandates.
Lawmakers ended the special session soon after that.
Beshear's veto message referred to masks as a “safe and effective way” to combat the spread of COVID-19. The governor previously issued statewide mask mandates and recently said he thought another mask order was needed to confront the current surge.
The special session marked a power shift in the state’s response to the virus. Throughout the pandemic, Beshear acted unilaterally in setting statewide virus policies, saying his actions saved lives. Republicans branded his actions as overly broad and stringent.
The special session comes as Kentucky's hospitals struggle with a record influx of virus cases. Beshear warned Thursday that only 90 adult intensive care beds were available statewide. He noted nearly two-thirds of Kentucky's hospitals face critical staffing shortages, and more than 300 Kentucky National Guard members will be headed to 21 hospitals to assist health care workers.
“Our hospital situation has never been more dire in my lifetime than it is right now,” Beshear said.
Working late into the night, Republican lawmakers asserted their newfound dominance in shaping Kentucky's pandemic policies — the result of a state Supreme Court ruling last month. The court cleared the way for laws to take effect limiting the governor’s emergency powers to impose virus restrictions. The governor responded by calling the legislature into session.
The school-related bill nullified the state school board’s requirement that anyone in public K-12 schools wear a mask. It also ended a separate state mask mandate for child-care centers.
Another bill winning final passage Thursday night imposed a prolonged ban on any statewide mask mandate, leaving masking decisions up to local governments and businesses. It was part of a broad measure addressing medical staffing, vaccines, tests and treatments related to COVID-19.
Beshear also vetoed mask provisions in that bill. Republican lawmakers swiftly overrode that veto as well.
The legislature also passed a measure to appropriate more than $69 million in federal funds for pandemic-related efforts. The funds are aimed at increasing COVID-19 testing for health care providers, schools, health departments and correctional facilities. The governor signed that measure into law, his office said.
During debate on the schools bill, supporters said mask decisions are best left to local boards, to reflect the will of their communities.
“This bill will give local control back to the districts — not mandating they do, not mandating they don't," said Republican Sen. Max Wise, the bill's sponsor. "They make the decision of what they think is best for their constituents in their communities.”
Opponents warned that lifting the mask mandate would put children and school staffs at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. By putting the burden on school boards to decide mask policies, Democratic Sen. Karen Berg said the legislature was abdicating its responsibility.
“I think you are asking for fights in school board meetings, where parents are going to be intimidated, where school board members are going to be intimidated,” Berg said.
Sen. Morgan McGarvey, the chamber's top-ranking Democrat, said removing blanket masking protections comes when the delta variant is infecting more young Kentuckians. More than 300,000 Kentucky students aren't old enough to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, he said.
“This bill ... is really a life-and-death bill,” Democratic Sen. Reggie Thomas said. “If we eliminate mask mandates, then we are putting all children and all school personnel at severe risk.”
In the House, Democratic Rep. Pamela Stevenson warned the virus is so pervasive that the lack of masking requirements in schools would mean that children are going "into the lion's den.”
Republican Rep. John Blanton countered that the bill removes a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
“We are not taking masks away from your children today,” he said. “Masks are still part of the tools that's provided for each and every school district across this state.”
Beshear had asked legislators to give him authority to, at a minimum, require masking when COVID-19 infection rates reach high levels.
The school measure gives districts more scheduling flexibility to cope with virus outbreaks. It allows local school leaders to limit remote instruction to a particular school, grade or classroom — depending on the extent of the outbreak — instead of closing the entire district. The overriding goal is to keep children in class when possible, Wise said.