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Executive order gives Tennessee parents power to bypass masking in schools

Published: Aug. 16, 2021 at 9:52 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee parents who don’t want their children to mask up in the classroom can opt out of mask mandates.

Governor Bill Lee issued an executive order Monday, Aug. 16, and now parents, politicians, and physicians are sounding off about it.

Republican state lawmakers wanted Lee to call a special session to talk about getting rid of mask mandates. The governor chose this option instead, saying it eliminates the need for the legislature to come back to Nashville.

“Local decision making is very important, and individual decision-making by a parent on issues involving the health and well-being of a child is the most important,” Lee said during his news conference

Lee’s action gives parents, not school districts or health departments, the final say if a child should wear a mask in class.

“No one cares more about the health and well-being of a child than that child’s parent,” said the governor.

Lee’s announcement signaled victory for parents protesting the Tipton County school system’s mask mandate Monday.

“For some of us, it’s not about the mask and whether to wear the mask or not wear the mask. It’s about our freedoms and our rights as humans,” said nurse and mother Ashley McCaskill.

But other moms, dads, and educators are angry and frightened.

Jennifer tweeted to Action News 5: “I absolutely hate my kids are too young to vaccinate. I feel helpless.”

A music teacher tweeted: “all this does is add to the stress of educators. It feels like they’re setting us up for failure.”

Politicians are deeply divided along party lines.

Democratic State Representative Antonio Parkinson from Memphis released the following statement:

“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? Many children in Shelby County and across the state live in multigenerational households. More and more children are requiring hospitalization when contracting Covid and can easily transmit the virus to parents and other family members whom they may come in contact with. These conditions may prove debilitating or fatal for a child or their family members. I disagree with the executive order and it is irresponsible. This decision is a slap in the face to every parent that wants to jeep their children safe while at school and a slap in the face to healthcare workers and an already strained to healthcare system in our state. The goal is to stop the spread of the virus in Tennessee. This executive order in no way will curb the spread of the virus. As a matter of fact, it may accelerate the spread of Covid in our state.”

His Democratic colleague in the House, Representative London Lamar tweeted: “The latest Executive Order issued by Governor Bill Lee is truly frightening…all while our hospital beds fill up, elective procedures are postponed and the National Guard has to be called in to help. We need common sense leadership instead of Government overreach.”

And Democratic State Senator Raumesh Akbari tweeted: “I could not disagree with this more. Hospitals across TN are at or near capacity. Kids can’t get vaccinated and should be protected at all costs.”

Republican State Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown tweeted: “I’m grateful for the relief the governor provided today to children in Shelby County and throughout the state. Every child’s situation is different, and parents know what’s best for their children.”

And Speaker of the House, Republican Cameron Sexton tweeted: “Gov Lee’s executive order issued today is good news in affirming a parent’s right to make healthcare decisions for their 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 upon our business community.”

Dr. Jon McCullers, chair of pediatrics at UT Health Science Center and pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur, said doctors are seeing more sick children with the Delta variant than they did in the first two waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. He told Action News 5 about 15 percent of the children at Le Bonheur right now are COVID patients.

“More kids sick, more kids in the hospital,” he said. “More of those who are at most risk getting into intensive care. But we’re not seeing a lot of really healthy children getting critically ill or dying at this point.”

McCullers said the most seriously ill children in the ICU or on ventilators typically either have very severe obesity, which is a COVID risk factor across all age ranges, including pediatric cases. He also said the sickest kids have significant co-morbidities like diabetes or neurological disorders.

As for mask mandates in schools?

“Wearing masks is one of the most important things we can do to protect our children,” McCullers said. We fully support the use of mask mandates in schools, whether they’re put in place by local schools or by the authorities.”

The Shelby County Health Department, which mandated masks for students in all public and private schools in grades k-12, along with daycares and preschools, released a statement to Action News 5:

“The Shelby County Health Department will comply with the Governor’s Executive Order No. 84 and make adjustments as necessary. SCHD continues to encourage everyone eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the best protection against the virus. We also continue to support the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics that children age two and older, teachers, and staff members at schools, preschools and day cares should wear masks in indoor settings particularly in regions with high transmission of the COVID-19 virus, which includes Shelby County and all of Tennessee. SCHD will also continue to fulfill its statutory responsibility to investigate and isolate cases, as well as trace and quarantine contacts.”

The Shelby County School system, the largest school district in the state, said it will continue to enforce its mask mandate for students, staff, and campus visitors while the district evaluates its options. Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray tweeted Monday night:

“Board Members and Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray are consulting with our General Counsel to explore and review the legalities of Governor Lee’s Executive Order 84. In the meantime and in alignment with the Shelby County Health Department Order No. 24, masks will be required for all employees, students, and visitors who enter schools and District offices.”

Shelby County commissioner and attorney, Van Turner, who also heads the NAACP Memphis branch, thanked Ray for his leadership, posting to Facebook, “I do not think we have any other recourse but to take our grievances to federal court. This Executive Order endangers lives.”

University of Memphis law professor, Steve Mulroy, told Action News 5 the options for districts that object to Lee’s order are limited.

“Well, they have two choices. They can either challenge this in court or they can comply and simply say they are requiring masks,” said Mulroy. “But at the same time, if a parent wants to opt out, then they have to allow them to. Now, they could require that they do so in writing and that they state the grounds for it. But at the end of the day, unless they’re willing to challenge the governor’s executive order in court they’re going to have to let individual parents opt out of the mask mandate.”

Shelby County’s municipal school districts updated their mask policies after Lee’s news conference, saying masks will still be required for teachers, parents, and visitors to campus, but not for students if parents fill out the opt-out form. It appears each district will craft its own form and make it available to parents.

Lee’s final advice for the 6.95 million residents in his state:

“I need to remind Tennesseans,” he said, “that the most important tool that we have to fight the pandemic is the vaccine.”

Children age 12 and up are eligible for vaccination.

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