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Feds Threaten Tennessee With Civil Rights Probes Over Top-Down Resistance To Masking In Schools

Students in Sumner County Schools are not required to wear masks, though some parents and medical professionals have been pushing for a mandate.
Courtesy Sumner County Schools
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via Facebook
Students in Sumner County Schools are not required to wear masks, though some parents and medical professionals have been pushing for a mandate.

Tennessee may risk federal civil rights inquiries if the state continues on its current track, allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates for no reason at all. The U.S. Department of Education has put eight states on notice that their current guidelines conflict with federal policy meant to offer a safe, in-person learning environment.

In a memo, Secretary Miguel Cardona says his department may “initiate a directed investigation if facts indicate a potential violation of the rights of students as a result of state policies and actions.” He says the department will also respond to complaints from parents of students “who may experience discrimination as a result of states not allowing local school districts to reduce virus transmission risk through masking requirements and other mitigation measures.”

“We will take any necessary action to ensure that nothing interferes with a school district’s discretion to make these critical investments, including state policies from a Governor, state legislature, state education agency, or other officials,” Cardona writes on the Department of Education blog.

Letters went first to Florida and Texas, then to Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. They indicate that following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is essentially part of the deal in accepting federal COVID relief money for schools.

Tennessee’s universal opt-out

The leader of the Tennessee House of Representatives asked for a special session to restrict COVID requirements in schools. As a compromise, on Monday, Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order giving parents permission to ignore a school mask requirement.

In most Tennessee school districts, masks were already optional. After an unruly debate, Williamson County required masks for elementary grades. Rural Henry and Hancock counties mandated masks after local outbreaks just days into the school year. Now, parents can opt out with a written request.

But, the state’s two largest districts — Shelby County in Memphis and Metro Schools in Nashville — effectively ignored the executive order, drawing ire even from the Republican leader who has been supportive of masking in schools.

As COVID cases grow among school-age children — up nearly 14,200 cases statewide in the last 14 days — more school districts are feeling pressure to require masks. Now with backing from federal authorities, Franklin Special School District has called a special meeting Friday afternoon.

Gov. Lee responded with a statement on Twitter: “Parents know better than the government what’s best for their children.”


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

Blake Farmer is Nashville Public Radio's senior health care reporter. In a partnership with Kaiser Health News and NPR, Blake covers health in Tennessee and the health care industry in the Nashville area for local and national audiences.
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