House Speaker would require in-school learning without masks

By: - August 2, 2021 9:01 pm
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, photographed by John Partipilo on the Tennessee Capitol.

On Monday, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton said he’ll propose a school voucher program if school systems don’t conduct class in person and maskless in the coming academic year. (Photo: John Partipilo)

With student test scores plummeting amid the COVID-19 pandemic, House Speaker Cameron Sexton threatened Monday to require school districts to conduct in-person learning without masks and vaccination segregation this year. Otherwise, he would call for the start of a new voucher program.

In a press conference at the State Capitol, Sexton said he would seek a special session to take aim at school districts that mandate masks or opt for online learning, even though the Delta variant is ramping up across Tennessee and hospitalizations have reached the same level as in February. He also would target any school district where unvaccinated students are separated from vaccinated students.

If any school system closes its buildings to in-person learning, Sexton said he would ask the governor to call the Legislature into session to allow parents to take state education funds and go to another school district of their choice. Sexton voted two years ago against the governor’s education savings account program, which would have allowed low-income students in Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts to use state money to enroll in private schools. A ruling from the Tennessee Supreme Court is expected soon.

Sexton contended the TNReady data results showed students need to be in the classroom and to work without masks. The results found students regressed in almost every area last school year.

“There needs to be a message to these school systems it’s unacceptable to close schools or systems in our state anymore,” said Sexton, a Crossville Republican.

Afterward, Sexton said such a concept would be different from the ASD program, which narrowly passed two years ago, because parents have no other option if their school district closes buildings. He also said the state’s Achievement School District could take over systems in cases where students aren’t performing well and those districts require masks or separate vaccinated students.

A drop in state testing scores has prompted Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton to threaten to call for a new state voucher program if schools do not return to in-person, maskless classes.

Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools conducted learning online for much of the 2020-21 school year, and numerous districts across the state used a hybrid method of online and classroom teaching. 

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie called Sexton’s proposal “ridiculous” and accused him of targeting the state’s two largest districts.

“It’s very shortsighted for the governor and Cameron Sexton to use this as a backdoor attempt to get vouchers implemented in Shelby and Davidson counties,” Dixie said. 

He pointed out the Legislature held a special session in 2020 to address the pandemic but came up with no plan to protect students for in-person learning, especially children who are under 12 and ineligible for vaccinations. 

Rep. Vincent Dixie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Vincent Dixie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Students could carry the virus and infect school teachers and staff, bus drivers, parents and grandparents, the Nashville Democrat pointed out. And in school outbreak cases, schools could be hamstrung by legislative action, he said. 

No school district in the state is planning to shut down this year or conduct classes solely online. Shelby County Schools is set to require students to wear masks, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. And Metro Nashville Public Schools board of education is to meet Thursday to discuss COVID-19 protocol, including the possibility that students need to wear masks based on Centers for Disease Control guidelines and the Delta variant.

Gov. Bill Lee urged schools to shut down in March 2020 when the pandemic struck, but he noted Monday he wanted schools to reopen last August. At the time, though, he gave school districts the option for online learning and hybrid models.

“The vast majority of our schools did open up in August (2020). We now see the results of remote learning on students and we should have all been in-person learning throughout that period,” Lee said.

Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced Monday the number of students who are on track or mastered courses decreased while data show more students fell grade level.

Based on 96% of students taking TNReady tests in the spring, economically disadvantaged students, urban/suburban students, English learners and students of color suffered the most negative impacts.

English Language Arts proficiency fell off by 5 points from 2019, and only three of 10 students met grade-level expectations in that area. In fact, English Language Arts proficiency rates dropped 4 to 6 points across racial and ethnic lines.

Some 68% of second-graders and 47% of third-graders scored below their grade level in language. 

“It is really hard to teach a child to read. It is really hard to do that in a pandemic,” Schwinn said.

The report showed only 25% of Tennessee students are on their grade level in math. Black students felt the brunt of the dip in math, with 67% scoring below grade level and only 9% meeting grade-level expectations. Test results for science fell off as well.

Lee expected a learning drop-off in the middle of the recent school year and called a January special session when the Legislature adopted summer programs and literacy initiatives.

The governor said data coming out of this summer’s programs will help the state determine what direction to take next.

The stances taken by Sexton and the governor appeared to conflict with some comments earlier in the day from Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, said more than 1,000 people are hospitalized, the same level as during a February surge. “It is clearly the wrong direction,” Piercey said.

Piercey said during a press briefing the Delta variant is sweeping across the state, pushing the number of cases up more than 200%. She noted, however, vaccinations are up 22% compared to the previous week.

The state is averaging 1,871 cases a day with a 13% positivity rate among those tested. More than 1,000 people are hospitalized, the same level as in February when a surge hit the state following the holidays.

“It is clearly the wrong direction,” Piercey said, noting most of those hospitalized are unvaccinated.

Asked what steps school districts are expected to take this week to combat the virus, Piercey said it would be up to local school boards to determine whether they want to use mask mandates.

Gov. Lee, however, said he believes parents, not the government, should decide whether students wear masks at school. 

He would not acknowledge that he declared the crisis’ end too soon, noting the state has vaccines, which weren’t available in February.

But while he has encouraged people to be vaccinated, the governor has not sought a mandate for shots, and he supported Piercey’s decision to fire the state’s chief immunologist, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, for encouraging children to be vaccinated. Fiscus claimed all the state’s messaging went through the Governor’s Office for approval.

Sexton, who admitted Monday he has been vaccinated, is staying away from encouraging people to get the shots, instead saying they should talk to their doctor. He was more adamant about masks, saying students should not be forced to wear masks because children have nearly a zero percent chance of dying from COVID-19.

“My daughter’s 7 years old. Making her wear a face mask in the classroom all day long is beneficial to her? I’m not so sure about that,” Sexton said.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.