Governor knocks Shelby Health Board for public/private schools mask mandate

By: - August 9, 2021 4:40 pm
Gov. Bill Lee at a July press conference. (Photo: John Partipilo))

Gov. Bill at a July 2021 press conference.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee criticized the Shelby County Health Board on Monday for mandating masks in public and private schools, saying the decision should be up to parents, if not school boards.

“I think Shelby County handled that the wrong way. I think school districts in this state are the ones that have been given the authority to make that decision for the kids in their (schools),” Lee said Monday.

Shelby County lawmakers are split over the issue, as some push for a special session to restrict health boards, and possibly school boards, from requiring masks in schools and on buses.

The Republican governor acknowledged that Shelby Health Board’s decision is authorized under state law but said it wasn’t the best approach and added, “we’ll see … where that goes.”

Under legislation passed into law this year, power to make county-wide decisions was shifted from health boards to county mayors. 

But in Shelby County, the health board drew support from County Mayor Lee Harris amid pediatric deaths caused by COVID-19 and the Delta variant to order masks at all schools and on buses. 

Harris, who contends the best way to combat the Delta variant is through vaccinations, said Monday he hopes the mandates can be temporary if the number of cases declines. He also said he wants to “make sure parental feedback is part of the process.”

Gov. Bill Lee criticized the mask requirement but acknowledged that Shelby Health Board’s decision is authorized under state law. Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris supported the county health board. 

The mayor declined to respond to Lee’s statement but said Shelby County’s goal is to protect as many children as possible, based on recommendations of scientists and public health professionals, amid the spread of the Delta variant.

“It drove us to action,” he said.

Speaking to reporters at a statewide gathering of emergency management leaders, Lee also said he is talking to legislators about the possibility of calling a special session to take action in light of mask mandates in Shelby County schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools by its school board and Hancock County Schools, which required masks last week after a spike in COVID-19.

The governor acknowledged the “transmissibility” of the Delta variant is a problem, though he said it doesn’t appear to be any more dangerous to children than the initial COVID-19 strain. He also believes parents should decide whether children wear masks, not health boards.

Lee said he had not spoken to House Speaker Cameron Sexton by Monday morning about whether he will request the Legislature be convened to deal with school system mask mandates. 

The governor declined to say what type of legislation might be pursued at a special session, noting, “Nothing’s off the table.”

Sexton said last week he would ask the governor to call a special session if any school district in the state mandates masks, closes school buildings or segregates students based on vaccinations. A spokesman for the House speaker said Monday discussions are ongoing and “everything is on the table.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has no burning desire for a special session but will not try to stop one either. Spokesman Adam Kleinheider pointed out Monday the governor can call the Legislature to convene or the Legislature can call itself into session with a two-thirds vote of both chambers.

A special session could turn into a figurative shooting match, with some Republican lawmakers wanting to prohibit private businesses from requiring their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Such a move would run counter to longtime GOP opposition to government interference in private business.  

“Lt. Gov. McNally has not pursued either option. If a special session is called, he will work with Speaker Sexton and Gov. Lee to address any issues contained in the call,” Kleinheider said in a Monday statement.

But the details of the call could be so varied that a special session could turn into a shooting match. 

For instance, state Rep. Tom Leatherwood, an Arlington Republican, said Monday he agrees with the governor’s assertion that the Shelby County Health Board overstepped its bounds by requiring masks in public and private schools. Leatherwood is among the lawmakers pushing for a special session to strip health departments of rule-making ability.

“I think the Shelby County Health Department was out of line and they should not have that authority, and the authority in regard to schools should rest with the local school boards,” Leatherwood said Monday. 

Leatherwood contends the health department, one of six statewide that operate independently from the Tennessee Department of Health, should work only in an advisory position to municipalities and city school districts outside of Memphis.

Other lawmakers, though, could make a push to ban vaccine passports in private businesses, putting them at odds with companies such as Tyson Chicken, which is requiring workers to be vaccinated. A new measure is already in effect prohibiting vaccine requirements in government.

Such a move could pit Republicans against each other, since GOP lawmakers for years have publicly opposed government intervention in private business.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

In contrast, to Leatherwood, state Rep. Antonio Parkinson points out that Shelby County’s health board did not break the law, nor did it come to the decision “for the sake of making people uncomfortable.”

The Shelby County Health Department made the decision based on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics, both of which say children who are not eligible for vaccinations should wear masks in school buildings and on buses.

“We really, really need to focus on keeping our children and our citizens safe and stop making this thing a political play to your base,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat. 

Parkinson noted children could be in a “super-spreader” event daily at school and take the virus home to parents and grandparents who aren’t healthy enough to ward it off. Teachers also face a difficult situation by being around clusters of children daily, he added.

“You didn’t want the children in virtual schools. So, you say it’s better for children to be in the classroom. Well, we’re putting the children in the classroom. Now we want to keep the children safe in the classroom, and you’ve got something to say about that,” Parkinson said.

Eventually, state leaders should listen to the health departments who are responsible for helping keep the public safe, he said.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.