Tennessee lawmakers react to Biden slap at Lee

By: - August 19, 2021 3:51 pm
Gov. Bill Lee at a plant dedication Humboldt, Tennessee in March, pictured with plant workers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee at the dedication of a Tyson chicken plant in Humboldt, Tennessee in March, pictured with plant workers. Tyson Foods has said it will require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo: John Partipilo)

President Joe Biden and his administration are challenging Tennessee’s Gov. Bill Lee’s order allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates and questioning its legality.

In a tweet, Biden said, “We will not sit by as Governors try to block or intimidate educators protecting kids against COVID-19.”

“This isn’t about politics. This is about keeping our kids safe and taking on this virus together.”

In addition, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sent a letter to the Tennessee Department of Education saying the governor’s order could clash with federal law.

Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools are opting to keep student and staff mask mandates in place despite an executive order this week by Gov. Lee requiring districts to allow parents to opt their children out of those requirements. The letter by Cardona, obtained by the Tennessee Journal, sides with those school districts.

“Tennessee’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person plans required by federal law,” the letter states.

In a tweet, President Joe Biden took aim at Gov. Bill Lee and other GOP governors, saying, “We will not sit by as Governors try to block or intimidate educators protecting kids against COVID-19.”

Cardona’s letter points out the American Rescue Plan Act requires school districts receiving federal funds to adopt plans to return students to in-person learning safely. CDC recommendations include “universal and correct wearing of masks,” the letter says, adding the federal department is “concerned” Tennessee’s actions could hinder school districts’ ability to adopt plans for safe return of students and educators.

The Governor’s Office did not respond immediately to questions but has said previously it expects school districts to comply with the order. However, Lee tweeted, ” Regarding the Biden Administration letter: Parents know better than the government what’s best for their children

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who previously asked the governor to call a special session to deal with school district mandates, maintained his backing.

“Speaker Sexton continues to support a parent’s right to make healthcare decisions for their children regardless of what President Biden says. As Speaker Sexton previously said, the House stands ready to act if the call for a special session comes. All options are on the table, and by all, the Speaker means all,” said Doug Kufner, spokesman for Sexton.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who has said for weeks he believes school boards should be able to make decisions on the masks, nevertheless supported the governor’s order. 

“McNally remains convinced the governor’s order is lawful and must be complied with,” said spokesman Adam Kleinheider. He referred to a previous statement by McNally in which the lieutenant governor said he was “extremely appalled and alarmed” at the response by Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts to the governor’s order.

He called Lee’s executive order a “compromise” that enabled school districts to ensure the safety of students while giving parents the right to decide whether children should wear masks.

McNally also appeared to shift his stance on whether to call a special session, saying if the districts continue to defy the governor’s order, “we will have no choice but to exercise other remedial options.”

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville: "Every person here could be a litigant." (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said Thursday he believes the threatening  talk of special sessions, enforcement and legal action will stop. Yet even he has doubts about the governor’s order.

“The letter casts even more doubt on the enforceability of an executive order that was already legally and morally questionable,” Yarbro said. “Hopefully schools can be left alone to do what’s safe and best for the kids and their system without worrying about whether each step is angering politicians.”

The “first instinct” by Lee and McNally in which they said local school boards have the authority to set rules “was the right one,” Yarbro said, pointing out the state has always left initial education decisions to be made at the local level.

“It ought to be an extreme case that causes any deviation from that principle,” he said. 

As a Metro Nashville Public Schools parent, Yarbro said he wants his children’s school board, superintendent and principal to be “making the best decision available … without pressure from the left, the right or in between.”


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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.