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Shelby County Commission Black Caucus offers support to anyone interested in challenging Gov. Lee’s order on school masks

Published: Aug. 17, 2021 at 8:08 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 17, 2021 at 10:53 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Shelby County Commission Black Caucus is responding to Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt out of mandatory masks at school, sending support to Shelby County parents and anyone who challenges the order.

On Monday, Lee declined a request from Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton for a special session targeting school mask orders but announced Executive Order No. 84, which he says gives parents the ultimate decision-making for their children’s health and well-being. Under the order, parents can opt their children out of wearing masks in schools regardless of any existing mandates from local health departments or school districts.

Reaction to the governor’s order is split down party lines with Republicans expressing thanks for giving parents to ability to choose and Democrats criticizing Lee and citing increasing COVID-19 cases among children.

Five caucus members spoke Tuesday morning in the Shelby County building downtown, citing increasing COVID-19 cases among children and the impact on hospitals in southern states.

District 7 Commissioner and Black Caucus Chair Tami Sawyer called the governor’s order “distasteful.” She said parents are reeling from his decision and Shelby County, already burdened she said by economic concerns and lack of educational opportunities, cannot afford to not have as many protections as possible for children in schools.

“We cannot have it both ways,” said Sawyer. “We cannot deploy the National Guard to Tennessee because our hospitals are full and our medical staff is overworked and COVID-19 is overtaking our state again and then at the same time say we don’t need protections. When Gov. Lee’s wife got sick, she had all the protections possible. Our children need those as well.”

Sawyer said commissioners have received pictures of school hallways in recent weeks. She said it’s impossible for children to social distance between classes.

“When I see those pictures, most of the children are wearing masks as required, but now with children being able to opt out, we’re going to see an even greater spread,” she said.

Sawyer said many children in Shelby County are being raised in multi-generational homes and risk taking the virus back to ailing grandparents, younger siblings and their parents who will them spread it in the community.

District 8 Commissioner and Black Caucus Vice-Chair Mikell Lowery said masks should not be political but decisions are being made “strictly based on politics.”

“Every major employer in our state are requiring masks to enter into buildings,” said Lowery. “We don’t hear the governor telling our major employers not to have mask mandates, but we’re doing it for our children.”

He continued: “We’re going to support any method, by any means, whether it be legal, resources, by parents, by the school system, to keep our children safe.”

District 12 Commissioner and Chairman Emeritus Van Turner said he has children in elementary, middle and high school, and he’s concerned most about his youngest who has an autoimmune illness and cannot yet receive the vaccine.

“I think parents...have rights, but they don’t have rights to endanger the lives of other children and other households,” said Turner.

He said we need rules to protect students, their parents and educators, and masks are not unreasonable because they protect the lives of others.

Turner referenced a teacher’s recent death after contracting the virus from a student.

“So here we are dealing with real life situations where people are passing and the governor is doing something opposite of what’s going to protect our young people. From a legal standpoint, we support any and all efforts to pursue legal action. Because there again, an individuals rights should not lead to a situation where the lives of others are in danger.”

Turner said the Black Caucus supports litigation and anyone or group that pursues legal action.

“I ask each of you what has happened to us when our children become nothing more than political pawns?” said District 10 Commissioner Reginald Milton. Their lives are put at risk for politicians to make their points. I can state right now that I stand against this and I stand for our schools and I stand for all our children. And I will not play politics or games with their lives. And I ask you all of you to stand with us to say this is wrong and the governor is wrong.”

“Once again Shelby County is being told we cannot make decisions for ourselves,” said Sawyer.

She said when the county makes decisions, often the state lawmakers will try to appeal or reverse the decision, and it’s not how state and local governments are supposed to work together. She said local lawmakers are kept from making decisions out of fear of litigation or punitive measures by the state.

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