Lieutenant governor warns school districts to follow new mask opt-out order

By: - August 17, 2021 8:55 am
Lockeland Elementary School in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lockeland Elementary School in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally threatened Tuesday to take “remedial options” against school systems that refuse to follow the governor’s order allowing parents to opt students out of mask requirements.

“I am extremely appalled and alarmed at the response to Gov. Lee’s executive order from Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools. This order was a compromise that still allows school boards to ensure the health and safety of their students while recognizing the rights of parents to decide what is best for their children. The governor and the General Assembly cannot and will not allow lawful orders to be defied. If these systems persist in resisting the order, we will have no choice but to exercise other remedial options,” McNally said.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, photographed at the Tennessee Capitol on March 18, 2020 by John Partipilo.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, photographed at the Tennessee Capitol on March 18, 2020 by John Partipilo.

The Governor’s Office said counties and school districts are expected to follow the law.

McNally’s statement shows he could be leaning toward supporting a special session of the Legislature to target school districts. The governor averted a special session Monday with his executive order.

Meanwhile, Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk said Tuesday he would not prosecute school districts for refusing to give parents an option on student masks.

Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools are refusing to comply with Gov. Bill Lee’s new executive order on mask opt-outs, setting up another legal showdown between the districts and state.

Schools Director Adrienne Battle released a statement Monday night saying the district will require masks based on the rules its school board adopted after the governor mandated that parents statewide be allowed to opt out of mask requirements for children.

“The Metro Nashville Board of Education and I are charged with educating our students and with keeping them safe. Universal masking policies, during the pandemic, are a key mitigation strategy to do just that,” Battle said in her statement. “To allow anyone to opt out of these policies for any reason, other than legitimate medical need, would make them ineffective and would require more students to be quarantined and kept out of the classroom.”

Battle pointed out the governor’s executive order was released “without prior notice” to schools districts for their review or comment.

“As such, Metro Schools will continue to require face masks, pursuant to the rules adopted by the board, as we further review this order and explore all options available to the district to best protect the health of our students, teachers and staff,” she said in the statement.

Shelby County Schools Director Joris Ray said Monday he and the district’s school board members are consulting with their attorney to review the legalities of Gov. Lee’s executive order. In the meantime, though, the system is complying the Shelby County Health Department’s order, which requires masks for all employees, students and visitors in schools and offices.

The governor said Monday any district that refuses to follow his new executive order would be breaking the law. But he did not say what steps would be taken for enforcement.

Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools are already tied up in legal battles with the state over the state’s funding formula and the governor’s Education Savings Account program, which would give low-income students and Metro Nashville and Shelby County schools state funds to enroll in private schools.

Gov. Lee, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said for weeks that mask policies lie in the hands of school boards. The Metro Nashville Board of Education adopted its universal mask policy Aug. 5 for students, staff and school visitors based on Mayor John Cooper’s order requiring masks in all Metro government facilities, in addition to recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics.

COVID-19 case counts have gone up in Davidson County as the Delta variant sweeps across the state, filling Tennessee’s hospitals with patients, 88% of which are unvaccinated.

Metro Nashville Public Schools reported 52 staff members and 207 students tested positive for COVID in the previous week, with 908 students in isolation or quarantine.

How do you say decisions on community health should be made locally and in the very same breath and sentence remove local control in regards to children wearing masks at school?

– Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis

The school district, in a release, pointed out that the CDC recommends universal masking in K-12 schools because while masks offer protections against contracting COVID-19, they are most effective at stopping an infected person from giving the virus to others.

MNPS is one of several districts across the state to adopt a mask mandate in advance of the 

governor’s executive, which he made Monday in an effort to avert a special session of the General Assembly.

The Shelby County Health Department ordered universal masking for all public and private schools in its county, while Hamilton, Hancock, Henry, Williamson, Franklin City and several others adopted mask mandates.

Williamson allowed parents to opt out of its mask requirement and, according to reports, was processing numerous requests last week.

Democrats immediately hammered the governor Monday for making the executive order.

“How do you say decisions on community health should be made locally and in the very same breath and sentence remove local control in regards to children wearing masks at school?” said state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who chairs the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators.

Parkinson pointed out many Shelby County children live in multi-generational homes and could spread the disease to parents and grandparents, while at the same time be hospitalized themselves, which is becoming more prevalent. 

Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis (Photo: Submitted)
Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis (Photo: Submitted)

State Rep. London Lamar called Lee’s order “truly frightening” for the state’s schools and accused Republican leaders of “putting politics over people.”

“I’m terrified that this decision could increase the rate of COVID-19 in our children, as well as increase the risk for their families and educators who come into contact with them,” said Lamar, a Memphis Democrat.

The governor’s executive order was spurred by a request from House Speaker Cameron Sexton that Lee call a special session for the Legislature to pass bills targeting school districts that mandate masks, shut down school buildings or segregate unvaccinated students. Sexton, a Crossville Republican, threatened to seek legislation setting up vouchers for parents to transfer their children to private schools if districts close buildings.

All 73 of the House Republican Caucus members signed a letter by Sexton last week seeking a special session. The Senate did not ask for a special session, led by Lt. Gov. McNally who felt local districts should make the decision but supported the governor’s Monday order.

Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Culleoka Republican who signed the letter, said the governor had made it clear he believes parents should decide whether students wear masks to school, as well as whether they should be vaccinated or have any medical procedure.

“He’s going to err on the side of the parents to make sure they have the final say,” Cepicky said after leaving the governor’s Monday press conference.






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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.