“Either we value life or we don’t,” said Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (Photo: John Partipilo)
Hours before House Speaker Cameron Sexton threatened to seek a special session targeting school districts over COVID-19 policies, the Davidson County delegation made a push for Metro Nashville Public Schools to mandate masks for students this year.
The delegation sent a letter written by Rep. John Ray Clemmons to Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Adrienne Battle early Aug. 2 asking her to require facial coverings for all students while indoors, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics.
Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, said he didn’t know whether Sexton’s comments came in reaction to the letter, but he scoffed at the notion of a special session.
“I would find it hard to believe that Gov. Bill Lee, who has deferred and shifted the burden in responsibility for making all-important decisions to local governments and municipalities throughout this pandemic, would call a special session and charge Tennessee taxpayers just to punish Nashville for making a decision it feels is in the best interest of its students and families,” Clemmons said Tuesday.
The letter points out Dr. Alex Jahangir, chairman of the Metro Board of Health and Metro COVID Taskforce, has also stated he believes masks should be worn indoors at schools.
In addition to Clemmons, the letter is signed by Sens. Heidi Campbell and Brenda Gilmore and Reps. Bill Beck, Bob Freeman, Darren Jernigan, Bo Mitchell, Jason Powell and Mike Stewart.
Sexton said during a press conference on low TNReady test scores he would ask the governor to call a special session to stop school districts from shutting down school buildings, mandating masks or segregating unvaccinated students from vaccinated students.
Even though he voted against the governor’s education savings account program two years ago, Sexton noted he would seek a voucher program to allow parents to enroll their children in other schools if buildings are closed in their district. He also broached the idea of seeking an Achievement School District takeover of systems that shut down schools.
Clemmons said Tuesday he felt Sexton was “trying to flex for radical extremists,” but did little other than to say he would ask for a special session of the Legislature.
He also noted that vouchers have been found unconstitutional in Tennessee schools. The governor’s ESA program was rejected by a Davidson County chancellor and the State Court of Appeals and is awaiting a decision by the State Supreme Court.
The Davidson County Republican Party also sent Battle a letter opposing a mask mandate, saying their efficacy is questionable, according to reports.
Battle was non-committal about a mask mandate Monday. But the Metro Nashville Public School Board is set to meet Thursday to consider COVID-19 policy and a potential mask requirement for students.
Gov. Bill Lee would not commit to calling a special session if Metro requires face masks, saying it would be discussed. But he agreed that students should not be required to wear masks, separated based on vaccinations or forced to stay at home and learn online.
Lee made the comments even though the Delta variant is causing case counts to increase statewide and hospitalizations to go up more than 200% to about 1,000.
Shelby County Schools has said already it will require masks for students while at school.
I wish every child would have been in school, but we knew that wasn't going to happen.
– Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, chair, House Eduction Administratin Committee
During Monday’s press conference, the governor and other state officials blamed poor test performance on steps taken by school districts to combat the pandemic, specifically decisions by Metro Nashville and Shelby County schools to close buildings and teach students online. Several other systems across the state, though, used hybrid methods in which students went to school buildings two days a week and took classes online the rest of the time.
Student scores plummeted in nearly every category. Predicting learning loss would be high, the Legislature responded in January by setting up literacy programs and new summer schools.
House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White called the school schedules during the past year a “learning experience,” but he agreed largely with Sexton.
“I wish every child would have been in school, but we knew that wasn’t going to happen,” said White, an East Memphis Republican.
White acknowledged part of the concern last year was that students could spread the disease to teachers, parents and grandparents.
“I think we’re at a point now where we have a real balancing act where this learning loss is real and it’s going to impact not only our state but each individual child in the future,” White said. “I think we’re at a point now, we can say let’s get back in school, let’s do every healthcare initiative we can, but we need to be back in the school and back in the classroom.”
Still, he agreed with the governor and speaker that masks should be left up to the individual because of the difficulty of teaching and learning while wearing a mask the entire school day.
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