Schools, doctors, community leaders stand against Tennessee governor’s masking executive order

Shelby County Health Department says its school mask mandate remains in effect
Published: Aug. 17, 2021 at 8:28 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 18, 2021 at 6:43 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee’s largest school district is moving forward with mandatory masks despite Governor Bill Lee’s executive order, allowing parents to opt-out of making their kids wear a mask.

The pushback comes on the same day the Shelby County Health Department announced its school mask mandate remained in effect.

The health department said the governor’s executive order did not nullify its mandate but provided an avenue for parents to submit a formal, written request for their kids to opt-out.

The health department also said going forward, if a student or school staff member tests positive in a classroom where some students are unmasked, then all children and staff members who’ve been within six feet of that positive case for at least 15 minutes must quarantine.

The governor’s executive order allowing parents to opt-out was met with strong backlash in Memphis and Nashville.

“What has happened to us when our children become nothing more than political pawns? Their lives are put at risk for politicians to make their points,” said Reginald Milton, Shelby County Commissioner, Dist. 10.

Milton joined other members of the Shelby County Commission’s Black Caucus in speaking against the executive order.

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, the chair of the Black Caucus, called the governor’s order “distasteful” and says Shelby County parents deserved as many protections as possible for their children in schools.

“We cannot have it both ways. 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,” said Sawyer.

The governor says while school districts make decisions they believe are best for their schools, parents should be the ultimate decision-makers.

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

Memphis State Rep. G.A. Hardaway says the governor is in no position to question and interfere with local health decisions.

“It’s wrong, and until you can get Tennessee out of the worst categories for everything COVID, everything pandemic, leave us alone!” said Hardaway.

Health professionals across Tennessee are also criticizing the governor’s executive order.

“I was disappointed and a little shocked,” said Dr. Jason Yaun, a pediatrician at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. “My biggest concern is that we have children continue to attend school and transmit COVID, contract COVID.”

Yaun said doctors have seen rising case numbers and hospitalizations in recent weeks among children.

He joined more than 2,000 healthcare professionals in Tennessee in signing an open letter to Lee, sharing their concerns about his executive order.

They say Lee’s order “threatens the public health of entire communities” and implore the governor to “allow local health departments to guide school boards in mandating masks.”

“We have studies that show that schools are not a significant source of transmission of COVID when everyone follows guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics, which does include masking for all individuals, regardless of vaccination status,” said Yaun.

Yaun says while this issue has become politicized, for most doctors it’s not about politics.

“A child’s health should never be politicized as pediatricians. We dedicate our lives to the health and wellbeing of children and that’s it,” said Yaun.

Nashville’s district attorney, Glenn Funk, says he will not prosecute teachers who defy the governor’s order and make kids wear masks.

Action News 5 checked with the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office to see how it plans to handle this issue. We’ve not yet heard back.

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