Bill to prohibit schools from requiring masks passes first hurdle

Rep. Lynn Bechler

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A bill to prohibit public schools, colleges and universities from requiring masks has passed out of committee and is on its way to the full House.

House Bill 51, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, would prohibit mask requirements “on any public school premises,” school-sponsored transportation and at school-sponsored events. It would also ban requirements at public colleges and universities, and allows parents of children enrolled in publicly funded child-care facilities to refuse masking for their children without any retribution.

The bill conflicts with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order that required students and drivers to wear masks on buses, regardless of their vaccination status. The rule applies to all public transportation conveyances.

The bill, with a committee substitute that drops references to viruses other than Covid-19, passed out of the House Education Committee on a 12-7 vote, with Republicans Adam Koenig of Erlanger and Killian Timoney of Lexington voting “no” with the Democrats.

Explaining his “no” vote, Timoney, who works in the Fayette County Public Schools, said his constituents are asking him to do what it takes to keep kids in school rather than at home with non-traditional instruction.

“So for me, this is a mask versus an NTI,” he said. “And all the evidence about mask wearing and harms, it’s anecdotal. What’s not anecdotal is NTI being a detriment. So that’s why I’m a no vote today. To keep local control and . . . making sure that we’re keeping kids in person.”

The General Assembly removed the governor’s authority to issue mask mandates during the 2021 special legislative session, allowing those decisions to be made at a local level.
Koenig said he voted “no” because local school officials should decide. He said each of the superintendents in the three school districts he represents is handling the issue differently, and “I respect their understanding of their school district, and their ability to do what they feel like is best for their districts.”
Rep. Tina Bojanowski, D-Louisville, said, “Again and again during this special session, members of this body spoke about the importance of local control. With this bill, we are taking away local control and jeopardizing a mitigation strategy that is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

When asked about the issue of local control, Bechler said, “I don’t know of anything that more local than a parent making the decision whether or not their child should have to wear a mask.” In a news release, he said, “Giving local control is ultimately about giving people a choice in what impacts them the most. . . . Parents can make their own informed decision when it comes to this, and college students should be able to do the same. I look forward to seeing all the smiles on children’s faces.”

Earlier, Bechler offered a long list of what he said are “problems brought on by mask wearing,” including an increase in suicides among youth; that masks don’t allow people to fully communicate with others because they block facial expressions; that they can make it hard for children to learn phonics, that they cause asthma and breathing issues, and that they create an environment prone to grow yeast, thus increasing acne. He cited no specific evidence for his assertions.
State and federal public health officials have strongly recommended universal masking in schools as part of a holistic strategy to decrease the spread of Covid-19 and to keep students in the classroom.
Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, asked Bechler why he was proposing a bill that removes protections from “our most vulnerable, our children.” He answered, “Because masks don’t work.” Scott replied, “That’s not true.”
Rep. Mark Hart, R-Falmouth, asked for studies showing masks work, saying “doctors and reputable people” testified in other committees that they don’t.
Rob Weber, communications and policy director at the Kentucky Academy of Science, the largest organization of scientists in the state, with over 4,000 members, said he would send committee members a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and told Kentucky Health News later that his group would gather other studies to send them as well.
He told the committee, “House Bill 51 would remove the ability of colleges and schools to be guided by science when decisions are made on masking policies.”
The CDC has compiled a list of studies that show how the use of masks control the spread of Covid-19. Most recently, a CDC study, released Feb. 11, found that consistent use of a face mask or respirator (KN95 or N95) in indoor public settings was associated with lower odds of getting Covid-19.

Among the 534 study participants who reported the type of mask they used, cloth masks offered 56% more protection against the virus than wearing no mask indoors; surgical masks offered 66% more; and respirator mask, such as N95 or KN95, offered the most additional protection, 83%.

Kristen Worthen, an Oldham County mother of three, one a 4-year-old who is medically fragile and still too young to get vaccinated, urged the committee to defeat the bill, saying community spread of the virus is still so high that masks are still needed. Oldham County Schools recently went mask-optional.

“To take away this protection from my family, to take away my children’s ability to attend school by advocating for this bill — you’re actively advocating against medically fragile kids and their families,” Worthen said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky also spoke to the needs of people with disabilities in a letter to the members of the committee urging them to vote against HB 51. It wrote, “HB 51 undermines the rights of all Kentuckians, especially Kentucky kids, with disabilities. By denying local institutions the right to put in place reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities, as it relates to masking, you undermine the fundamental rights afforded to people with disabilities under federal law and the Constitution.”
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