Gov. Andy Beshear has made his feelings clear about Science Hill's plan to allow parents to decide whether or not their kids wear masks in school. Science Hill Superintendent Jimmy Dyehouse has words in response.
On Thursday, Beshear chastised Kentucky school districts that are not continuing to operate under a mandate that students and employees wear facial masks as protection against the spread of COVID-19.
"If you are a school district that is not requiring universal masking, you are directly endangering the children, the staff ... everybody who is in each of your buildings,” the Associated Press reported Beshear as saying. “And it is an inexcusable decision. Every single public health agency, every one, has said that universal masking is the only way to keep kids in school.”
Beshear's own mandate along those lines was recently struck down in by the Kentucky Supreme Court. A similar mandate from the Kentucky Board of Education was done away with by the Kentucky State Legislature in a special session this month, giving local school districts the option of handling the situation their own way.
So far, Science Hill School — a single-facility district of about 400 students that goes up through eighth grade — is one of two in the state planning to offer parents the choice whether or not to send their child to school with a mask, along with Gallatin County. Another, Burgin Independent Schools in Mercer County, will require students to have masks in hallways but not classrooms, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. According to the Associated Press,138 of the state’s 171 public school districts are continuing to make students wear masks in school.
According to the Associated Press, former state attorney general Beshear approached the subject of potential liability issues, saying that “(a)nyone who is making those decisions is facing huge personal liability in the future,” and that "once they make a decision that is against all science, that is against all evidence, that is against all advice and somebody gets hurt, they ought to expect to pay, one way or another.”
Dyehouse responded to Beshear's comments Thursday in an interview with the Commonwealth Journal. In regard to whether or not mask-optional policies are dangerous, Dyehouse said that "is not the case at all at Science Hill School," and that all he's concerned about his own district and students, and how its parents feel, as opposed to what other schools in the state are doing.
The superintendent, who has been at Science Hill since 2016, starting as principal, questioned the effectiveness of masks in a school setting in relation to all other environments in which students may find themselves.
"For the life of me, I just can't understand why everybody says to mask kids at school — seven hours a day is how long they wear their masks at school — and as soon as they walk out my door, they take their mask off and they don't put it on again until 8 a.m. the next morning," said Dyehouse. "In the meantime, my same kids that I mask up all day go to Walmart, the playground, ball practice, the mall, all these other places where it's very possible that they could contract COVID, just like any of us could do.
"When we say it should be a parent's choice, they know their child best, and I feel that Science Hill can keep my kids safe even without a mask on, we turn into the bad guys," he continued. "It makes it looks like we're putting kids in danger."
Dyehouse observed that there were tens of thousands of "screaming college fans" at the University of Kentucky's home football game in Lexington this past weekend — most of them not wearing masks. The same is true elsewhere in the country, he noted, and he loved seeing people back in the crowded stadiums. "But somehow masking school-age kids for seven hours a day is supposed to stop the coronavirus from spreading."
Moreover, Dyehouse has seen Beshear himself photographed at public events not wearing a mask. "And I'm sure it's because he's been vaccinated and he feels safe, but don't tell me one thing and then turn around and do something else. ... I just don't know how they think that kids being the least likely of all to become very sick from the coronavirus, how masking them up when we don't have to mask anywhere else is supposed to stop or slow down the spread of the coronavirus."
Meanwhile, having masks on all day at school may be having a detrimental effect on students, both psychologically and educationally, Dyehouse observed.
"I've got preschoolers and kindergarteners coming in who have never seen kids without a mask on before," said Dyehouse. "That's not normal. I have preschoolers and kindergarten kids trying to learn how to pronounce words in English class or Language Arts, and they're trying to listen and watch a teacher who's got a mask on her face. They can't even watch the way she moves her mouth to sound out a word. Facial expressions are almost a thing of the past right now, because we can't even see a person's facial expressions when they're talking to us. So all those things (are a problem)."
On Tuesday, Science Hill's school board unanimously approved a COVID-19 operations plan that would ask parents to complete an online or paper form to indicate their decision on masking their child. Teachers will be provided with this information and will let parents know through regular communication methods if the child is not following parental guidelines. Failure to wear a mask for a child whose parent has indicated that preference will not be a discipline issue within the school, but rather the parent will be notified and asked to correct the issue at home or change the masking form preference.
The masking policy also applies to the school’s employees. Unvaccinated staff are encouraged to wear masks but it’s up to them, said Dyehouse, who noted that 85 percent of the school’s staff is vaccinated.
The new policy goes into effect on Monday, September 20.
Dyehouse said that the response from parents has been overwhelmingly positive. He hasn't had "anything negative whatsoever from my folks here in Science Hill" and said that as of Thursday afternoon, he'd spoken with two different board members afterward who told him they haven't received any calls or texts in opposition to the plan either as of Thursday afternoon.
Science Hill was preparing to go with the mask optional-plan at the beginning of the school year, and the post-special session policy effectively goes back to that way of doing things. The governor's mask mandate made right before school was set to start, changing what Science Hill was planning to do, resulted in Dyehouse making a call to parents to inform them of the change — a call in which Dyehouse referred to Beshear as a "liberal lunatic," marking the first public clash between the two to make statewide news.