Shelby County school districts remain divided over masking rules

Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 10:09 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County school districts remain divided over the issue of masking.

Some districts are requiring masks. Others are not, despite a warning from the Shelby County Health Department (SCHD).

But one school district did reserve course with its policy.

The Germantown Municipal School District now says masks are required. The about-face comes after a federal judge’s order.

But this issue is far from settled.

SCHD said masks are still required.

The department said it is investigating complaints of violations, adding that any breakouts “could make a significant difference in the number of students who are quarantined due to exposure.”

“Nothing has changed from the stance of the Shelby County Health Department because there is an order from a federal judge that says universal masking is to remain in place,” said SCHD Director Dr. Michelle Taylor.

There are two federal court orders.

One from a federal judge in Memphis says the county must continue to enforce its health directive, which calls for a school mask mandate.

Another from a federal judge in Nashville says schools must operate as they did last Thursday before Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a bill banning school mask mandates.

After adopting a ‘masks are optional’ policy over the weekend, the Germantown Municipal School District reversed course Monday night, saying masks are once again required.

The district said in a statement, “it is our understanding that the federal judge specifically stated that because one of the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit is a student at Germantown Municipal School District, the Germantown Municipal School District must maintain its mask-wearing requirement. We will follow the judge’s order and continue requiring masks in our schools until further notice.”

Another plaintiff in the case is a disabled student who attends Collierville Schools.

But as of Tuesday, Collierville Schools continued to say masks were optional, as did other districts, like Millington Municipal Schools, citing the new state law.

Another hearing in the lawsuit challenging that new state law banning mask mandates is set for Friday in Nashville.

A new judge has been assigned to the case.

Another law set to take effect would remove the authority of SCHD to issue school mask mandates altogether.

House Bill 9076, which passed during the recent special session, specifies that during a declared pandemic, only the governor can issue executive orders and directives for each county health department.

Taylor, who called the measure “harmful to public health,” said mitigation efforts the county put in place, including universal masking at schools, helped reduce COVID-19 infections.

“It’s very hard for somebody in Nashville or anyplace else that doesn’t live in this area to understand what we have to do and the calls we have to make when it comes to public health,” said Taylor.

The governor didn’t sign the bill but is allowing it to become law without his signature.

Lee said “it requires significant updates to account for the non-pandemic functions of public health departments” and those would be addressed in the next regular session.

The Shelby County Health Department said late Tuesday that it is investigating complaints regarding health order violations.

It also said in the event of an outbreak “the masking practices could make a significant difference in the number of students who are quarantined due to exposure.”

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