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Marshall County Schools Superintendent Says District Will Create Plan To Sidestep State Mask Mandate

Marshall County High SChool.jpg
Liam Niemeyer
Buses lined up outside of Marshall County High School on Wednesday.

The superintendent for Marshall County Schools says the district, at an upcoming board meeting, will create a plan to sidestep the governor’s universal mask mandate inside schools. This comes after the superintendent directed staff Wednesday to not discipline students who refuse to wear masks inside schools. This move is counter to the governor’s executive order implementing the mask mandate.

Superintendent Steve Miracle said he made the decision to not discipline students following a Wednesday morning meeting with concerned parents at the school district’s board of education office. The Marshall County Tribune-Courier reports Miracle told more than 60 community members at the meeting that he was “perfectly happy to fight against” the mandate but had to make the best decisions from a district liability standpoint.

In an interview with WKMS News on Wednesday, Miracle said he believes the mandate would be difficult to enforce because of strong community resistance and questioned why there wasn’t a broader mask mandate for all indoor public places. He also questioned the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools, saying there is research on “both sides” on the efficacy of masks.

“As long as there's conflicting evidence and you can't disprove one or the other, then you don't have evidence of either. So it can't be said that they're effective,” Miracle said. “They say trust the science, but the science never is produced that shows complete evidence one way or the other.”

Miracle also claimed masks, when not cleaned, were potential vectors of disease. He also said the mental and social impacts on students of COVID-19 restrictions such as masks are not being considered with the mandate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cited numerous studies from across the world demonstrating the efficacy of masks in significantly limiting the spread of COVID-19. Infectious disease experts have said normal use of masks do not cause bacterial or fungal infections.

In his questioning the efficacy of masks, Miracle also shared a picture of an anonymous form letter to WKMS News that argued putting masks on children is legally problematic. The text of the form letter matches the text of a similar form letter found on a website called “America’s Frontline Doctors,” a website run by a right-wing political organization known for spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the Marshall County community later on Wednesday, Miracle said the school board would be meeting on August 16 to create an operating plan for the district “outside of the mandate,” using state legislation passed earlier this year. He said the district would have to follow the state mask mandate until after the creation of the plan at the special-called meeting board meeting.

House Bill 1, the legislation cited in Miracle’s letter, allows businesses, schools, nonprofits and churches to stay open if they meet COVID-19 guidelines set by the CDC or Kentucky’s executive branch, whichever is less restrictive.

Marshall County Health Department Public Health Director Billy Pitts declined to comment on whether he supported the move to not discipline unmasked students, which he said he only learned of when he was called for comment from WKMS News.

Pitts said his department has always encouraged the school district to follow CDC guidance on COVID-19 prevention in schools, adding that his department has been in consistent communication with the district in planning for the school year. The CDC recommends schools require universal masking for students, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, due to the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant.

“They decide what they're going to do, and so I'm trying to, you know, follow along and try to back them up and support them. And I think they've done a good job. I really do,” Pitts said.

Pitts said he’s not sure what entity would enforce the executive order and added that the county health department isn’t enforcing the executive order. There was legal and regulatory uncertainty last year when some restaurants in Marshall County considered staying open in defiance of an executive order from Beshear restricting operations of bars and restaurants due to the spread of COVID-19.

Sebastian Kitchen, a spokesperson for Governor Andy Beshear’s office, when asked about the ramifications for school districts who don’t follow the mask mandate, referenced WKMS News torecent video commentary from Beshear.

“I strongly suggest local leadership, strongly support [the mandate]. This is where we provide a united front. This is whether you’re on the side of protecting kids. Because you know what the right thing to do is,” Beshear said in a press conference Tuesday. “But whether you’re worried about those that don’t do the right thing and what they think of you, there comes a time in our lives and leadership, where courage, backbone and doing the right thing is absolutely required.”

A Facebook group created Tuesday following the executive order from Beshear called “Citizens of Marshall County Opposing Mask Mandates” has approximately 2,000 members as of Wednesday evening. Members in the group have shared sentiments against masks, against the governor, and in support of superintendent Steve Miracle.

One parent of two children enrolled in Marshall County Schools supports the state mask mandate due to the severity of the pandemic, even though she wishes schools could return to a completely normal setting.

“The way I see it, we’re helping one student to not be hospitalized or worse, then to me that’s worth it,” said Laura Willoughby, whose daughter is in 4th grade and son is in 6th grade.

Willoughby said she wanted to share her opinion as a counterpoint to those who are against mask mandates in the county, and she plans to keep her children attending in-person classes wearing masks.

Marshall County, along with most counties in Kentucky, has a “high” rate of COVID-19 spread as classified by the state, the most severe classification of transmission. Marshall County Schools is reporting 43 active cases of COVID-19 and 94 individuals quarantined due to potential exposure on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, state data showed intensive care unit capacity is at 78.43% across the region consisting of Ballard, Caldwell, Calloway, Carlisle, Crittenden, Fulton , Graves, Hickman, Livingston, Lyon, Marshall, McCracken, and Trigg counties.

"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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