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Tennessee Governor Orders School Districts To Let Parents Opt Out Of Mask Mandates

11/30/2020 Governor Bill Lee swears in John DeBerry
TN Photo Services

Gov. Bill Lee is requiring schools to allow exemptions to mask mandates. He signed a new executive order Monday authorizing parents to opt out, without needing to give a reason.

Departing from federal health guidance, Lee said masks should be optional.

“They’re protective and if parents want their child to be protected in that way, then they should do so. And if a parent believes that that’s not best for their kid because of other reasons, then they should have the ability to make that decision for the health of their children,” Lee said.

The governor’s order is meant to be a compromise with House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who requested a special session meant to restrict local COVID rules.

“Gov. Lee’s executive order issued today is good news in affirming a parent’s right to make healthcare 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,” a reference to the Metro Public Health Department and others.

But Sen. Jeff Yarbro, the Senate minority leader, said Lee’s order risks the safety of Tennessee children.

“School systems across Tennessee are already reporting huge COVID-related absences, and the National Guard is activating to help understaffed hospitals dealing with the latest spike,” Yarbro said. “This is no time for the governor to play politics and undermine local school efforts to keep kids safe.”

Exemptions have generally been allowed by districts that have implemented mask mandates, but Metro Nashville Public Schools has not granted any to date. The Tennessean reports that Williamson County Schools, whose mask requirement only includes elementary grades, has granted nearly 3,400.

Meanwhile, COVID has been spreading among kids statewide. In the past two weeks, more than 9,000 new cases have been confirmed among school-age children in Tennessee.

Copyright 2021 WPLN News. To see more, visit WPLN News.

Caroline Eggers covers environmental issues with a focus on equity for WPLN News through Report for America, a national service program that supports journalists in local newsrooms across the country. Before joining the station, she spent several years covering water quality issues, biodiversity, climate change and Mammoth Cave National Park for newsrooms in the South. Her reporting on homelessness and a runoff-related “fish kill” for the Bowling Green Daily News earned her 2020 Kentucky Press Association awards in the general news and extended coverage categories, respectively. Beyond deadlines, she is frequently dancing, playing piano and photographing wildlife and her poodle, Princess. She graduated from Emory University with majors in journalism and creative writing.
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