Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton. (Photo: John Partipilo)
House Speaker Cameron Sexton is asking the governor to call a special session to clamp down on school systems with mask mandates, even as Middle Tennessee physicians seek school district mask requirements.
Sexton, a Crossville Republican, was working with House members Tuesday on a letter draft to Gov. Bill Lee requesting a special session. Members are to be able to sign on before it is sent, according to a statement from Doug Kufner, spokesman for Sexton.
The request comes a little more than a week after Sexton said he would ask the governor to call the Legislature into session if any school districts in the state mandated masks, shut down buildings or segregated students based on vaccinations. In cases where buildings were closed, Sexton threatened to pass legislation creating vouchers enabling parents to take their children to private schools.
In doing so, Sexton is pitting himself against physicians across the Mid-state as the Delta variant ramps up, especially in children, with pediatric deaths being cited in Shelby County as the impetus for a mask mandate in public and private schools.
Physicians in Sumner County are calling on their school board to require masks in schools and on buses – at least temporarily – to prevent the spread of the disease. A group of parents was also slated Tuesday to address the Williamson County Schools Board to request temporary mask requirements.
Based on recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, a group of Sumner County doctors urged the Sumner County School Board and County Mayor Anthony Holt to adopt a temporary universal mask mandate until the spread of the variant subsides.
“We’re also asking that Gov. Lee and Speaker Sexton adhere to principles of local control, principles which they have long espoused,” said Dr. Jason Martin, a pulmonary critical care physician at Sumner Regional Hospital.
Martin described the trauma of holding the hands of COVID-19 patients as they take their final breath while also holding an iPad and listening to family members scream and wail when they see their loved ones die on the screen. Nearly 13,000 people in the state have succumbed to COVID-19 since the pandemic struck in March 2020.
Gov. Lee has adamantly opposed mask mandates at any level, not just in schools. At one point, he said children don’t get sick from COVID-19, later amended that to say only a small number suffer debilitating illnesses from the disease, then acknowledged this week the Delta variant’s transmissibility in children is a problem. Yet he has still cast doubt on its impact on children.
The group of Sumner County doctors pointed out 3,500 cases of childhood COVID-19 have been reported in Sumner County since the pandemic started, with 151 in the last 14 days.
“The children’s hospitals are filling up. Unfortunately, children are dying. We must prevent the spread of the virus in our community, and that means protecting kids who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, because those kids can get sick and they can spread the virus to more vulnerable populations,” Martin said.
Dr. Michelle Walther, an emergency physician at Sumner Regional Hospital, said during a Zoom press conference she has never seen “resources stretched so thin.” COVID cases are up in Tennessee 193% and hospitalizations 125% in the last 14 days with a 16% positivity rate across the state.
Sumner County’s positivity is higher at 18.4%, and only 40% of residents have gotten the first dose of a vaccine, she said.
As of Aug. 6, the state had 5,573 new cases of COVID in just two weeks, many of them Delta variant.
“We don’t yet know how children will handle the Delta variant. We do know that if 29,000 students in Sumner County Schools caught COVID this school year, it would be an estimated 18 unnecessary childhood deaths,” Walther said. That would be based on models from the initial COVID-19, not the variant.
COVID-19 skeptics such as state Rep. Bruce Griffey have doubts about the efficacy of masks, pointing toward articles that show they don’t stop the spread of the disease.
Speaker Sexton has said his elementary-age daughter shouldn’t be required to wear a mask to school, in part because children have nearly a zero percent chance of dying from the virus.
Martin, however, points to data from 2020 showing increased transmission rates and death rates in counties with mask requirements. And though he acknowledged masks and vaccines are “not perfect,” Martin said masks and vaccinations provide an increased layer of protection and efficacy.
A study by Vanderbilt University Medical Center shows counties that adopted mask mandates earliest in the pandemic saw a decrease in deaths while counties that never required masks saw an increase in COVID-related fatalities.
The Tennessee Department of Health reported this week total vaccinations increased 47% from July 12 to Aug. 2. In addition, 94 of 95 counties saw more vaccines given.
Those are tempered by the increase of the Delta variant and overshadowed by the debate about how school districts should protect students as they go back to school rather than take instruction virtually.
The debate is splitting the Shelby County legislative delegation, roughly between Democrats and Republicans.
For instance, Reps. Tom Leatherwood of Arlington and Kevin Vaughan of Collierville are backing the call for a special session. Vaughan said Tuesday he will sign the House speaker’s letter.
““I’m not leading the charge. I would be disappointed not to see one,” Vaughan said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my constituents as bothered by something as they are by this.”
An order by the Shelby County Health Board, which is backed by County Mayor Lee Harris, is mandating masks in public and private schools.
Vaughan contends each municipal school district had a mask policy but was overridden by the health department and its bureaucrats. He also calls the order on private schools an example of “overreach.”
State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, who opposes a special session, pointed out Tuesday the Republican leadership passed legislation in 2010 creating a virtual school district. Yet when the pandemic hit and Tennesseans wanted virtual education, GOP leaders opposed it and said students should be in classrooms.
As the school year begins, he adds, the Republican majority wants to limit masks in schools.
“Now, the same leaders want to issue vouchers as a punishment/alternative for those parents who don’t want their children to wear a required mask (only indoors) while in school,” the Memphis Democrat said.
Such a move would enable them to use public dollars to enroll in private schools. Yet, in Shelby County, private schools are under a mask mandate too, he said, leaving parents without an option.
The “continued adversarial position” between the state and Shelby County, the leading contributor of tax dollars in Tennessee, is “non-productive and stressful” to residents, Parkinson said.
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