Tennessee Governor Bill Lee on Monday signed an executive order that gives parents the ability to opt their children out of local mask mandates. Parents can opt out of local mask mandates enacted by either school boards or health boards. Some doctors quickly objected to the governor’s order, and legal objections and questions have already been raised.
The governor said districts will make the decisions that they believe are best for their schools, but parents “will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being.
“Right now, some of the greatest frustration is occurring in our K-12 schools, especially around the issue of mask mandates,” Lee said in the announcement of his order. “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.
“No one cares about the health and well-being of a child more than a parent. I am signing an executive order today that allows parents to opt their children out of a school mask mandate if either a school board or health board enacts one over a district.”
Masks are currently required in three Oak Ridge schools where at least 20 COVID-19 cases have been reported: Jefferson Middle School, Robertsville Middle School, and Willow Brook Elementary School. Masks are optional in the other schools. It wasn’t immediately clear how the governor’s order would affect mask mandates at the three Oak Ridge schools.
When he announced his executive order Monday, Lee said hospitals in Tennessee are struggling as COVID-19 cases increase, but the surge in hospitalizations has been driven by adult cases.
“Those hospital beds are filled with adults,” Lee said. “Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is, in my view, the wrong approach.”
However, doctors pointed out that COVID is not just an adult problem because children, while generally less susceptible, can transmit the disease to more vulnerable people.
Mask mandates in schools have become controversial in some areas, such as Williamson County south of Nashville. In early August, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Crossville Republican, said he would ask Lee for a special legislative session if school districts mandate masks or close as the coronavirus spreads. Then, on Wednesday, all 73 members of the House Republican Caucus signed a letter pressuring Lee to call a special session to take action against schools requiring masks. The Tennessean reported that House Republicans wanted to focus on, among other topics, limiting the authority of health departments in the state’s largest counties and tackling the issue of mask mandates in schools. Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, has said he prefers to allow local school boards to continue setting their own mask policies, the newspaper reported.
On Monday, after issuing his executive order, the governor said he will not call a special session to consider mask mandates.
The governor’s executive order is Executive Order 84. Announcing the order on Monday, Lee said vaccines are the most important tool to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and he encouraged people to talk to their doctors about vaccines. Lee said he has been vaccinated, but the state will not require anyone to get the free, effective vaccine. Almost 100,000 Tennessee residents are being vaccinated per week, Lee said.
You can watch the governor’s press conference about the executive order here:
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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