The Kentucky Department for Public Health updated its guidance to say that students, teachers and staff should wear face masks at all times in school and on buses, except when actively eating or drinking, unless the person has a medical waiver.

Kelly Foster, Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) associate commissioner in the Office of Continuous Improvement and Support, told superintendents of the updated guidance to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the Special Superintendents’ webcast on Tuesday.

In addition to students, masks are “expected and required” for school employees unless they have a medical condition that prevents it, said KDE Interim Commissioner Kevin C. Brown.

In some districts, earlier school plans would allow students to remove their masks in the classroom if they are at least 6 feet apart. The new guidelines do not allow that.

“It was a clarification that went from students being 6 feet apart or a mask to 6 feet and a mask,” Caldwell County Interim Superintendent Heath Cartwright said. “That was the biggest piece.

“It’s not going to affect our (school) schedule or anything other than our students and staff will be wearing masks now. Rather than distancing 6 feet and being able to take the mask down ... we keep the mask.”

In dealing with students who resist wearing masks, schools should set examples and try persuasion and other techniques before using disciplinary measures, he said.

“It’s not really much of an adjustment because everybody was going to have the masks and be wearing masks for large parts of the day anyway,” Cartwright said. “It’s just something we’re going to have to work through and get used to, and we’ll do what we can to find appropriate times for kids to be able to not wear the mask.”

The updated guidance comes as weekly positive COVID-19 tests in Kentucky have tripled to quadrupled since the original Healthy at School guidance was issued in June, said Deputy Commissioner Connie White of the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH).

Case numbers are likely to rise again when in-person classes resume, she said, but if infection rates fall after that, some restrictions may be loosened. The intent of adding extra layers of protection is to help schools avoid future closures as a result of COVID-19 outbreaks, she said.

The change is an official expectation, not an optional best practice, Brown said, adding that the state now has a mandate for mask-wearing in public. KDE officials made clear from the start that Healthy at School guidance could change depending on the situation, and masks are the cheapest and most effective method for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, he said.

Fabric masks should be at least two-ply, and neck gaiters are acceptable if they have two layers, White said.

Brown said if infection rates don’t decrease by the time most schools resume in-person classes on Sept. 28, further mitigation measures may be necessary.

Several area school districts have had in-school instruction from the first day of school, while others have decided to resume their original COVID-19 plans as early as Tuesday.

Students can sit closer than 6 feet apart on buses going to and from school as long as they all remain masked and the bus is loaded from back to front, said Kay Kennedy, education consultant in KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations. Passengers from the same household may sit together.

Given limited time and supply of buses and drivers, some leeway was necessary, she said.

For traveling to sporting events or other extracurricular activities, when students are likely to ride longer and more buses should be free, students should adhere to distancing guidelines, Kennedy said.