Tennessee gov allows opt-out of student mask requirements

FILE – In this Jan. 19, 2021, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions after he spoke to a joint session of the legislature at the start of a special session on education in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order Monday letting parents opt their children out of coronavirus-related mask mandates in K-12 schools, after a few school districts issued mask requirements for students and others.

With the move, Lee also said he will not call the broad special legislative session requested by Republican House lawmakers to limit the authority of local officials to make rules aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, which has seen a resurgence in Tennessee through the delta variant.

All 73 Republicans in the state House signaled their support for the special session last week, and a handful of school board meetings have become contentious as some parents fight mask mandates for their children. But the Senate’s Republican leader, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, had said he trusts locally elected school boards to decide on COVID-19 health rules for schools.

McNally on Monday called Lee’s order an “appropriate compromise that strikes a proper balance between freedom and public health.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton led the call for a special session in a letter that spelled out topics broadly, ranging from addressing the authority of six independent health departments in larger counties — including Nashville and Memphis’ Shelby County — to make their own regulations on COVID-19, to looking into the practice of some businesses requiring proof of vaccination to enter their buildings.

Though it’s not in the letter, Sexton had also floated the idea of a voucher-type program to let parents remove students from schools with mask requirements so they can attend private school using taxpayer money.

Lee’s executive order keeps the focus for now squarely on the mask opt-out in schools.

If school officials were to enforce a mask requirement, Lee said: “I suppose that would be against the law and we would see what would happen there.”

Sexton said he’s confident “the immediate need for a special session has been averted in the interim by using executive orders.” But said he hopes the order can be extended to limit health officials in the six larger counties from making certain requirements that apply to businesses.

Lee has resisted implementing a statewide mask mandate for schools, and had left the decision to local school officials. The Republican governor’s order lets parents opt out if either a school board or a health department enacts a mask requirement over a school district.

“Right now, some of the greatest frustration is occurring in our K-12 schools, especially around the issue of mask mandates,” Lee said in a news release. “While local decision-making is important, individual decision-making by a parent on issues regarding the health and well-being of their child is the most important.”

The move drew sharp criticism from Democrats, who noted that schools are already reporting significant COVID-related absences and the state is offering the National Guard as staffing reinforcements at overwhelmed hospitals.

“It’s pretty tough to swallow that the governor is using the ’emergency powers’ statute to mandate that the emergency response be weaker?” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro said on Twitter.

Christiane Buggs, the Metro Nashville Public Schools board chairwoman, on Twitter called Lee’s order a “political move that puts students and staff in jeopardy.” The Nashville school district currently has 980 students and 95 staff members quarantined or isolated, and 207 students and 52 staff confirmed positive for COVID-19, according to district data.

Few school districts have elected to adopt a mask mandate as Tennessee’s vaccination rates remain among the lowest nationally. Those districts include Shelby County and Nashville. Some smaller school districts have as well, including Hancock and Henry counties. The rules in Hamilton County, which includes Chattanooga, offer opt-outs.

Private schools can still require students to wear masks under the order, Lee spokesperson Casey Black said. But there would be an opt-out option in private schools that were following a government-issued mask requirement, she said. Shelby County’s health order applies to private schools.

Masks are a key coronavirus-prevention tool that does not pose health risks for children older than toddler age and are most effective when worn by a larger number of people, public health experts say. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has again recommended them for schools. Currently, only those 12 and older are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.