Parents across the state can now opt their K-12 students out of school mask mandates after Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Monday issued an executive order clawing back some power from local school boards and other bodies.
Lee’s order followed a request from every Republican member of the state House for a special session. House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) asked for a special session for several reasons, including the establishment of a new school voucher program for students in schools with mask mandates. He won’t get that, after Lee on Monday said a special session was no longer necessary.
“Local decision making is very important,” Lee said. “Independent decision making by parents … is the most important. No one cares more about the health and well-being of a child than their parent.”
The governor was undeterred by a recent and dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases and especially hospitalizations, including among children, because, he said, “those hospital beds are filled with adults.”
Asked why his order didn’t apply to other school requirements for non-COVID vaccines and other health issues, Lee said that masks are the “issue of most frustration and concern right now.”
In Lee’s home county — Williamson — a mob of anti-mask parents recently threatened doctors and other health professionals who urged the county school board to institute a mask mandate. The board did indeed decide to implement one, but gave parents the option to opt their kids out for medical or “religious reasons,” and thousands have done so.
Around the state, students and teachers returning to classrooms have been contracting COVID-19 or forced to quarantine due to close contact with others in large numbers. COVID-19 vaccines are currently not approved for use in children younger than 12.
Though Lee’s order did not address all of Sexton’s requests, he called it a win.
“Gov. Lee’s executive order issued today is good news in affirming a parent’s right to make health care decisions for their children,” Sexton said. “I am hopeful this order can be extended further by curtailing the power of the six independent health departments that can still impose unlimited mandates upon our business community. I feel confident the immediate need for a special session has been averted in the interim by using executive orders. However, the House still stands ready to act if the call comes.”
And Lee didn’t rule out pursuing other measures in the future, including those related to Tennessee businesses instituting vaccine requirements for customers or employees.
Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), who opposed a special session and said local school boards should be able to make their own decisions, also praised Lee’s order.
“Gov. Lee's executive order is a wise and prudent solution to the proliferation of school mask mandates,” McNally said. “While I strongly urge all Tennesseans to get vaccinated or wear masks if they cannot, I respect any Tennessean with a sincere religious or medical exception. This executive order acknowledges the authority of local school and health boards to make these decisions while ensuring parents have the ability to opt out. This is an appropriate compromise that strikes a proper balance between freedom and public health.”
Democrats roundly criticized Lee’s decision, though some expressed optimism that not holding a special session would prevent supermajority Republicans from going even further in cracking down on local elected bodies and private businesses taking COVID-19 precautions. House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville) said that a special session “most definitely” would have produced policies that he considers more harmful, but still called Lee’s decision “appalling.”
“It goes to show the attitude of the governor and the Republican Party when it comes to our babies’ lives,” Dixie said. “He’s willing to play Russian roulette with our children. He’s sending them into the lion’s den with no armor. We have a serious lack of leadership.”
Though Lee moved to give parents a way out from masking their kids, he still praised the effectiveness of masks in blunting the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s protective,” he said. “We all know that masks are protective. That’s why parents need to make their decision about whether their kids wear a mask to school. If parents want their child to be protected in that way, they should do so. They should have the ability to make that decision for the health of their children.”