Gov. Bill at a July 2021 press conference.(Photo: John Partipilo)
Rather than call a special session to let the Legislature deal with school board actions, Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order Monday requiring school systems to let parents opt out of mask mandates.
If a school system were to challenge the order, Lee said such a move would be against the law. He noted local decisions are “very important” but continued to reaffirm his contention that parents should decide whether their children wear a mask at schools.
Lee said last week the school boards have the authority to set mask mandates, and several did despite public uproar, including threats against a pro-mask resident outside a Williamson County School Board meeting. This decision changed his stance, even though the Williamson board and those in other counties gave parents the ability to opt out.
The governor said state law allows him during a state of emergency to issue an executive order suspending the authority of school boards, in this case in a “limited way” on masks. The state remains in a partial executive order, enabling the National Guard to assist with vaccinations and health care.
The Tennessee Department of Health has said wearing masks can protect both those who wear them and the others around them. Asked if it is wise to override the department, Lee said, “We all know that masks are protective, and that’s why parents need to make their decision about whether they want their kids to wear a mask in school.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, American Academy of Pediatrics and numerous health officials have said students should wear masks during the school day, especially those 12 and under because they aren’t eligible for a vaccine and could spread the virus. Already, several school districts in the state have experienced COVID outbreaks this year.
Lee’s announcement came even as Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey implored people Monday to avoid hospital emergency rooms unless they have a “true emergency” as COVID-19 and the Delta variant sweep the state.
The governor responded, in part, to a letter from House Speaker Cameron Sexton seeking the special session to deal with “misdirected and mandated responses” to the COVID-19 pandemic by school boards and the Shelby County Health Department.
In his press conference, Lee issued an edict that will change the policies for more than a dozen school boards and the Shelby Health Department to give parents an option to allow children to attend school without a mask.
Williamson County Schools was reportedly processing numerous opt-out requests last week after its school board voted to mandate masks, except for parents who request an exception.
Sexton sought the special session with a letter signed by 73 House Republicans to “curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials.” He recently broached the idea of giving parents private school vouchers to take their students out of mask-mandating districts but did not mention it in his letter.
Reacting to the governor’s order, Sexton issued a statement Monday calling the decision “good news in affirming” parental rights on healthcare decisions for children.
“I am hopeful this order can be extended further by curtailing the power of the six independent health departments that can still impose unlimited mandates on our business community. I feel confident the immediate need for a special session has been averted in the interim by using executive order. However, the House still stands ready to act if the call comes,” Sexton said in the statement.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who supported the authority of local boards to make decisions on health and safety protocol, found Lee’s executive order to be “a wise and prudent solution to the proliferation of school mask mandates.”
“While I strongly urge all Tennesseans to get vaccinated or wear masks if they cannot, I respect any Tennessean with a sincere religious or medical exception. This executive order acknowledged the authority of local school and health boards to make these decisions while ensuring parents the ability to opt out. This is an appropriate compromise that strikes a proper balance between freedom and public health,” McNally’s statement said.
Several county school boards, from Metro Nashville to Hamilton, Henry and Hancock, voted to enact mask mandates. In Shelby County, the health department set mask requirements for all public and private schools, which caught the ire of Republican lawmakers as well as Gov. Lee.
The decision will affect all school boards and departments of health, including those in larger counties that are independent of the Tennessee Department of Health, according to the governor.
Democratic state Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville scoffed at the decision, saying the governor is “willing to play Russian roulette” with children’s health while providing no solution for outbreaks in schools.
As child hospitalizations increase, Dixie called the decision “very upsetting” and said the governor’s decision to ignore those was beyond his “comprehension.” If children are mandated to go to school, some measure of protection should be given to those who sit beside unmasked, unvaccinated children, he said.
Remote learning should be available, Dixie said. But the governor said Monday virtual classes would not be allowed after a recent report showed learning loss among children in nearly every category.
“This particular order gives Cameron Sexton cover because he was the only person pushing for this. From the beginning, the governor never wanted this, and you saw there was no appetite for this from Lt. Gov. McNally, and so this was an obvious ‘let’s try to save face and try to unite as a party’ instead of just doing what’s right from the beginning, Dixie said. “And this is still not right. He still missed the mark.”
House Minority Leader Karen Camper, a Memphis Democrat, said in a statement she didn’t understand how the governor can “undo” decisions by local boards and health professionals “and think this is the right way to handle this new surge.”
She pointed out the health commissioner said Monday morning the National Guard is being activated to help with overrun hospitals experiencing a staff shortage.
“This is not the time to let our guard down and I encourage Tennesseans to get the vaccine, mask up and to take care of one another,” Camper said.
Not only are Republican lawmakers upset with districts placing mandates on students, they’re irate that businesses such as Tyson Foods are requiring workers to prove vaccination before reporting to work. Legislation to revoke vaccine passports, though, could cause turmoil within the Republican Caucus.
But the governor was not ready to attack that issue Monday, though he said “everything is on the table.”
Lee made Monday’s statement with the Delta variant causing hospitalizations to increase for adults and children statewide, with 2,200 people in hospitals across Tennessee, 45 of them children.
For the first 15 days of August, the state saw 1,223 hospitalizations, more than any full month since the pandemic started, according to Health Commissioner Piercey. The number of patients in intensive care units climbed to 662, matching the same peak the state saw last winter, with more than 40% of those suffering from COVID.
Hospitals are hampered by an exceptionally large number of people who were already in the hospital for non-COVID illnesses when the Delta variant ramped up, Piercey said. Staff shortages are causing problems as well, she said.
The state opened two alternative hospital sites last year in Nashville and Memphis, but those have been demobilized, according to Piercey.
The vast majority of hospitalized COVID patients statewide are unvaccinated, 88%, and 94% of those dying from the virus are unvaccinated, Piercey said.
“Vaccination is still the best way to avoid serious disease and death,” she said.
For those who experience breakthrough infection from COVID, Piercey said they should seek an antibody infusion available at hospitals. In addition, a third-dose booster is becoming an option for those who are cancer or transplant patients, HIV positive or taking medication that weakens their immune system.
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