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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — School-age children are contracting COVID-19 at a higher rate than any other age group in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday while exhorting newly empowered school districts to maintain mask requirements in schools.

The statewide vaccination rate among youngsters ages 12 to 17 is the lowest of any group, with 45% having received at least one dose. That combination had the governor using his bully pulpit to plead with local school boards and superintendents to continue mandating mask-wearing in schools.

Last week, the Republican-dominated legislature scrapped a statewide mask mandate for public schools and imposed a ban on any statewide mask rules until June 2023. The Democratic governor vetoed the mask-related language, but GOP lawmakers quickly overrode him before ending a three-day special session.

The legislature shifted masking decisions to local school boards.

“There is one right answer — where you choose masking, where you protect your kids, where you keep them in school,” Beshear said at a Monday news conference. “And then there is one wrong decision, where you endanger children and you allow COVID to spread throughout your community when your hospital is already overburdened.”

A school custodian in eastern Kentucky died from COVID-19 on Sunday, becoming the second staff member at Lee County Elementary to die from the virus since the school year began.

Custodian Bill Bailey died two weeks after an instructional aide at the same school, Heather Antle, also died from the coronavirus, Lee County schools Superintendent Sarah Wasson said.

“He fought hard against COVID but unfortunately it was too much,” Bailey’s son, Austin, said in a social media post. “I can’t put into words how much this hurts.”

The Lee County school board is scheduled to discuss mask policy and other virus-mitigation strategies this week, Wasson said. She said the districtwide mask mandate in effect since Aug. 11 would remain in place as “we work to make the best decisions for the safety of all students, staff and our community.”

Beshear urged school boards statewide to “do the right thing” and keep mask mandates in place. As of Sunday, 25% of the state’s 171 school districts had decided in favor of a school mask mandate, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

“We’re supposed to be responsible for the safety of our children,” the governor said. “Let’s step up and have the courage to be responsible for them.”

Kentucky currently ranks third nationally for the highest number of new daily COVID-19 cases per capita, Beshear said Monday. The Bluegrass State reported 10,007 coronavirus cases in the past three days, and more than 2,700 of those cases were in school-aged children. At least 68 virus-related deaths were reported statewide during those three days. Kentucky has reported more than 8,000 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began.

“Right now, COVID is as bad in Kentucky as it has ever been in this pandemic,” Beshear said. “And right now, sadly, we are one of the hottest states in the country.”

Nearly 70% of the state’s hospitals -- 66 of 96 -- are reporting critical staffing shortages, the highest number yet during the pandemic, the governor said.

“Our hospitals are at the brink of collapse in many communities,” said Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s public health commissioner.

Beshear and Stack continued to plead with the unvaccinated to get the COVID-19 shots. Beshear pointed to a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found people who were not fully vaccinated this spring and summer were more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated.

The governor called on Kentuckians to have tough conversations with their families and friends to urge the unvaccinated to get the shots.