FRANKFORT, Ky. — Gov. Andy Beshear first tried a softer approach, just recommending masks in schools as the delta variant sent coronavirus cases climbing. When the advice went unheeded in some school districts, he ordered that masks be worn as the surge worsened.

Beshear issued his executive order Tuesday, as many Kentucky schools kicked off the new academic year. He said it’s needed to try to prevent virus outbreaks that would close schools. Without masks, children too young to receive the vaccine would be defenseless, he said.

What You Need To Know

  • Backlash has begun after Gov. Andy Beshear ordered that masks be worn in all Kentucky schools

  • Attorney General Daniel Cameron filed a response with the Kentucky Supreme Court Wednesday, urging the Court to nullify Beshear's executive order

  • In a voicemail call to parents, Science Hill Independent School District Superintendent Jimmy Dyehouse referred to the governor as a “liberal lunatic"

  • Gov. Beshear said his mask order will be in place for at least 30 days

The governor’s mask mandate unleashed another torrent of Republican complaints and is likely to be hashed out in court. The reaction among educators was mixed.

While some red-state governors attempt to block school districts or other local governments from requiring mask wearing to lower the COVID-19 risk, Kentucky’s situation could be the reverse.

“I’m going to have the courage to do what I know is right to protect our children,” Beshear said.

The reaction was swift in the mostly conservative Bluegrass State, where Republicans wield legislative supermajorities and increasingly hold power in county offices.

Republican House Speaker David Osborne accused Beshear of flouting community decision-making. Attorney General Daniel Cameron, also a Republican, signaled he would have “more to say” in court.

"[Beshear] does not have to choose between following the science and following the law. The two can and should work together," Cameron said in a statement. "If he believes that the science requires a statewide mask mandate for schools and childcare centers, then he needs to do what the law requires and work with the General Assembly to put the necessary health precautions in place."

Cameron filed a response with the Kentucky Supreme Court Wednesday, urging the Court to overrule Beshear's order. The battle mirrors a handful of bouts between Beshear and Cameron last year when Republicans sought to repeal the statewide mask mandate Beshear ordered.

One school superintendent openly berated Beshear. In a voicemail call to parents, Science Hill Independent School District Superintendent Jimmy Dyehouse referred to the governor as a “liberal lunatic.” Beshear’s action, he said, means “the professional opinion of your superintendent doesn’t matter. The opinion of your school board doesn’t matter.” He said the district would comply with Beshear’s order, but hopes it’s overturned in court.

The Kentucky Education Association, a Beshear ally representing tens of thousands of educators, jumped to the governor’s defense. KEA President Eddie Campbell called masks “a simple, low-impact, essential precaution” to protect students, educators and families and “hopefully allow schools to remain open.”

A student group said the governor’s mask order reflects guidance from public health officials.

“Despite what some have said about the negative effects of wearing a mask in school, public health experts tell us that masks are the least invasive way to protect students and ensure a return to the type of education experience we know and miss,” the Kentucky Student Voice Team said.

The wrangling over masks comes as the delta variant sparks waves of new cases in Kentucky. Beshear reported 2,500 virus cases Tuesday — the state’s highest one-day total since January. Virus-related hospitalizations are surging at an “alarming” rate, he said.

Beshear waged an aggressive fight against the pandemic with restrictions on businesses and gatherings. In doing so, he faced lawsuits, occasional protests and unsuccessful impeachment petitions from a group of disgruntled Kentuckians. He was hanged in effigy by armed protesters.

Beshear stood up to the backlash, saying his actions saved lives. He won one round in the state Supreme Court over whether he wielded constitutional authority to impose virus-related mandates. The high court is reviewing new GOP-backed laws meant to rein in those executive powers.

The House speaker said Beshear usurped the authority of schools boards to decide masking policy.

“The governor may not agree with their choices, but he must respect their authority,” Osborne said. “Instead, at the eleventh hour, he chose to politicize this issue and flout their decisions by issuing an executive order with extremely questionable legal standing.”

When lifting most remaining virus restrictions in June, Beshear was eager to shift attention to the state’s economic rebound. But the virus’s resurgence pulled him back into pandemic management.

For weeks, he hedged about new mandates. Last month, he recommended everyone mask up in schools, but some districts ignored his advice and left it up to parents to decide. After virus cases escalated, including among children, Beshear acted.

He said his mask order will be in place for at least 30 days.

Responding to new GOP attacks, Beshear said: “I’m putting the lives of our people and the education of our children over politics –- they should as well.” To the unvaccinated, he said: “You won’t get your shot; you’re the reason that our kids are having to wear masks in school.”

Asked if he was confident that school administrators and teachers would enforce the mandate, Beshear replied: “If they care one lick about their kids, they certainly will.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.