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More Western Ky. school districts have lifted mask mandates. Some are still worried about future COVID-19 spread

Paducah Tilghman.jpg
Liam Niemeyer
Paducah Tilghman High School.

More western Kentucky school districts in recent weeks have lifted indoor mask mandates citing declining COVID-19 incidence rates across the region, yet some public health officials and parents are worried about future spread of the virus with many children still not fully vaccinated.

McCracken County Public Schools and Paducah Public Schools announced last week that indoor masking would be optional for staff, faculty and students starting Friday, Oct. 29. Murray Independent School District and Calloway County Schools in following days also announced optional indoor masking starting Monday, Nov. 1.

Some school districts, such as Marshall County Schools and Livingston County Schools, had also lifted mask mandates on Oct. 22. Other school districts, such as Lyon County Schools and Fulton County Schools, are using specific models based on COVID-19 transmission and attendance that have allowed for universal masking to be lifted in their districts.

Across the state and western Kentucky region, COVID-19 incidence rates continue to fall from a surge of cases and hospitalizations that started in August, fueled by the Delta variant of the virus. As of Tuesday afternoon, only Caldwell and Trigg Counties are in the “red zone” for local COVID-19 transmission in western Kentucky, the highest classification of local transmission given by the state public health department.

Calloway County and Livingston County are classified as having “moderate” transmission, the second lowest classification given by the state public health department. Hickman County — whose school district has made indoor masking optional since September — is reporting a COVID-19 transmission rate of zero. Despite that, some parents are still worried for their unvaccinated children.

Ed Cyzewski is a parent and Christian book author who has two unvaccinated children, ages nine and seven, attending Murray Elementary School. He said he wished Murray Independent School District had extended the mask mandate until after children ages 5-11 years old could be fully vaccinated.

“There is definitely a feeling amongst us and many of the parents we know that why couldn't this have waited a little bit longer?” Cyzewski said. “It's not an ideal situation to remove the mask mandate because masks work best when everyone is masking together.”

The Food and Drug Administration last week authorized for emergency use the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 5-11 years, with some pediatricians believing children in that age group could start receiving shots by the second week of November. The two-shot regimen would be administered at a lower dose, with the second shot taking place three weeks after the first shot.

While Cyzewski disagreed with the district’s decision, he thought district staff did well implementing the mandate when it was in place. He also didn’t wholly blame the school district for the decision, saying school districts were forced to make local masking decisions when the Republican-controlled state legislature passed legislation invalidating a statewide mask mandate in schools. He said he still plans to mask his children at school in the coming weeks.

Murray Independent School District Superintendent Coy Samons in a release said the district still recommends masking for those not fully vaccinated and plans to monitor local and state COVID-19 data to determine future protocols for staff and students.

For McCracken County Public Schools Superintendent Steve Carter, the decision to make masks optional came from falling COVID-19 incidence rates passing a threshold where school district leaders and local hospital and public health leaders felt comfortable making masks optional.

“This is a community issue, not a public school issue, that for some reason was kind of pushed on to public schools,” Carter said. “We had to look at it from a bigger view than just, you know, my personal nuclear family, and try to put things in place that are healthy, safe for everybody.”

McCracken County Public Schools in a release said the lifting of the mandate comes after the county has experienced ten consecutive days of an incidence rate of 20 daily cases per 100,000 people or less. As of Tuesday afternoon, the county’s incidence rate is 12 daily cases per 100,000 people. The district along with Paducah Public Schools plans to meet with the Purchase District Health Department and local physicians every week to evaluate local COVID-19 data.

Carter said in his district’s second day of having masks optional, more students and staff are choosing to not wear masks indoors than those who are still wearing masks. The school district is still recommending indoor mask wearing.

Many school districts in western Kentucky still have indoor mask mandates as of Tuesday:

  • Hopkins County Schools
  • Mayfield Independent Schools
  • Graves County Schools
  • Trigg County Schools
  • Crittenden County Schools
  • Carlisle County Schools
  • Christian County Schools
  • Caldwell County Schools
  • Dawson Springs Independent School District
  • Fulton Independent School District
  • McLean County Public Schools

Graves County Schools Superintendent Matthew Madding said his district still has a universal indoor mask mandate because of a specific model the district is following, created in collaboration with the county health department.

Graves County needs to have experienced 14 consecutive days with a county incidence rate of 20 daily cases per 100,000 people or less before masks are made optional in the district; there have been four consecutive days so far.

“What we're trying to look at is, what are we seeing in our community as far as spread goes? What are we seeing within our schools as far as spread goes?” Madding said. “That's why we're not just pulling masks off today is we want to see a sustained amount of time where the virus spread is low.”

Madding said some districts may be making different decisions on masking compared to others because they may be getting different feedback from local health departments, school board members and community members. He said he’s received feedback from parents wishing masks could be made optional sooner, along with parents who worry about the possibility of the mask mandate ending.

As school districts get closer to the winter, one regional public health leader is still concerned about COVID-19 spread in schools.

Pennyrile District Health Department Director Elisha Kite said she’s met with all school districts in her region covering Livingston, Lyon, Crittenden, Caldwell and Trigg Counties. She said her department recommends students, staff and faculty wear masks inside schools, following along with federal COVID-19 guidance.

“We do require masks in our own [department] buildings,” Kite said in an email. “We also have concerns over making mask wearing optional especially with not all children being able to get vaccinated and with colder temperatures and more people spending time indoors.”

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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