NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee today rebuffed Republicans’ calls for him to convene the state legislature in special session in order for bills to be passed that thwart mask mandates in public schools, but signed an executive order that essentially accomplishes the same thing.
Attempting to strike a balance between signaling support for schools and boards of education that are implementing new safety protocols and for the parents who are lashing out against them, the governor said that parents who object to schools’ mask mandates can opt out of them.
“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 governor said in a prepared statement. “No one cares about the health and well-being of a child more than a parent.
“Districts will make the decision they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being,” Lee added.
As if they weren’t controversial enough early in the coronavirus pandemic, masks in schools — and in general — have become fire-hot topics amid the latest surge of Covid-19 illness, with the separating line drawn largely among the political divide.
However, most of Tennessee’s school systems have not mandated masks for students this school year. Locally, neither school system is requiring masks. Scott County Director of Schools Bill Hall said last week that parents should “do what is right and best for their child.”
Classes resumed for Oneida students on Aug. 5, and for Scott County students on Aug. 9.
Statewide, there are currently more than 2,000 people hospitalized with Covid-19, about 60% of the number of people who were hospitalized at any point during the peak of the last surge, in December. Doctors say that most of those in the hospital are unvaccinated, and that younger people — including children — are making up a larger percentage of those hospitalized than during previous surges of the virus.
In his statement on Monday, Lee urged Tennesseans to get vaccinated, though he said that the state will not mandate vaccinations.
“It’s widely available, it’s effective and it’s free,” the governor said of the vaccine.
Lee said that “Our hospitals are struggling under the weight of covid but those hospital beds are filled with adults.”
That’s not entirely true. It has been well-publicized that Tennessee’s children’s hospitals are near capacity thanks to a combination of covid and RSV. However, it also continues to be widely accepted by medical professionals that serious cases of covid involving children are relatively uncommon. In the past two weeks, only about 4% of those hospitalized with covid in Tennessee were under the age of 20 and a little less than 1% were under the age of 10.
Scott County currently has 127 active cases of Covid-19, a number that has increased by five fold since Aug. 1. However, the TN Dept. of Health hasn’t reported a covid-related hospitalization or covid-related death in Scott County since the beginning of the latest surge of the virus.