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School officials, lawmakers react to Lee order on masks in schools

Aug. 16, 2021 – Tennessee Lookout by: Sam Stockard – Shortly after Gov. Bill Lee concluded a Monday press conference at which he announced parents across the state will have the option to decide if their children wear masks in school or not, responses began to pour in from elected officials and school districts. 

Lee issued an executive order mandating school systems must allow parents to opt out of mask requirements, after saying last week schools had the authority to issue them. Schools choosing to challenge the executive order will be judged to be violating the law, he said. 

But by Monday night, a robocall was going to parents of children enrolled in Metro Nashville Schools to say the district will still require masks and Adrienne Battle, director of Metro Schools, had posted a statement online. Battle’s statement and others are posted below. 

Adrienne Battle, director, Metro Nashville Public Schools: “The Metro Nashville Board of Education and I are charged with educating our students and with keeping them safe. Universal masking policies, during the pandemic, are a key mitigation strategy to do just that. To allow anyone to opt out of these policies for any reason, other than legitimate medical need, would make them ineffective and would require more students to be quarantined and kept out of the classroom. “The Governor’s executive order was released without prior notice to school districts for review or comment. As such, Metro Schools will continue to require face masks, pursuant to the rules adopted by the Board, as we further review this order and explore all options available to the district to best protect the health of our students, teachers, and staff.”

Joris Ray, superintendent, Memphis-Shelby County Schools: “Board Members and I are consulting with our General Counsel to review the legalities of Governor Lee’s Executive Order 84. In the meantime and in alignment with @ShelbyTNHealth Order No. 24, MASKS ARE REQUIRED for all employees, students, and visitors in our schools and offices.”

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Senate Minority Leader: “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.” “It’s pretty tough to swallow that the governor is using the ’emergency powers’ statute to mandate that the emergency response be weaker?” Yarbro tweeted.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, House Democratic Caucus Chair: “This Executive Order goes to show the attitude of Governor Lee and the Republican Party when it comes to our babies’ lives.  He’s willing to play Russian Roulette with our children, basically sending our babies into the lion’s den with no armor.  Today, the Governor offered no solutions or recommendations on how to protect our kids.  When making the announcement, he admits that masks are good in warding off COVID-19 while at the same time saying that we don’t want our kids to wear them.  It’s conflicting statements.  So no wonder that the average Joe is so confused on what to do.  It all boils down to a serious lack of leadership by Governor Lee and the Republicans that puts all of Tennessee at risk. “  

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis: “How do you say decisions on community health should be made locally and in the very same breath and sentence remove local control in regards to children wearing masks at school? Many children in Shelby County and across the state live in multigenerational households. More and more children are requiring hospitalization when contracting Covid and can easily transmit the virus to parents and other family members whom they may come in contact with. These  conditions may prove debilitating or fatal for a child or their family members. I disagree with the executive order and it is irresponsible. This decision is a slap in the face to every parent that wants to jeep their children safe while at school and a slap in the face to healthcare workers and an already strained healthcare system in our state. The goal is to stop the spread of the virus in Tennessee. This executive order in no way will curb the spread of the virus. As a matter of fact, it may accelerate the spread of Covid in our state.”

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville: “Gov. Bill Lee has opted to kowtow to individuals like those who threaten health care workers rather than listen to medical experts. Today’s Executive Order not only reflects a complete reversal of the governor’s complete deference to local officials throughout this pandemic, but it also poses a direct threat to our children’s health and education, as well as this state’s economy. Though children are, on average, more resistant to the effects of coronavirus, there is currently an alarming rise in pediatric cases. Additionally, our state is rapidly approaching its one millionth case of COVID-19, and almost 13,000 of our fellow Tennesseans have died. The governor’s executive order is contrary to our mutual goals. We all want our children to be safe and healthy and benefit from a high quality public education, and we agree that the most effective and equitable learning opportunity is in a classroom setting. Therefore, we should all be focused on how best to overcome any obstacles preventing us from accomplishing these mutual aims. One such way is to allow local officials to require a non-invasive and effective option readily available to every child – a facial covering. By allowing parents to opt out for any reason and eliminating the universal applicability of any such requirement, Gov. Lee is undermining the very purpose of a requirement and reducing the proven effectiveness of facial coverings. In so doing, he is purposefully jeopardizing our children’s health and their education, as well as our economy. For what?”

Hendrell Remus, chair, Tennessee Democratic Party: “The careless actions and decision making of Governor Bill Lee are becoming increasingly alarming. The issuance of his current Executive Order creates a dangerous environment for those who are most vulnerable amongst us, our children. Governor Lee has caved to the politically charged emotions of anti-mask enthusiasts, who are willing to make irrational decisions that will have a direct impact on the safety of Tennessee children and their teachers. He has cloaked this dangerous decision to undermine local governments under the hypocritical guise of giving parents an option. This is the same hypocrite who stripped parents of their option to allow their children to attend their current schools virtually to avoid getting sick and possibly dying from COVID-19. It is a reminder that Bill Lee cares about the life of others only when it’s politically convenient.  As a parent of two elementary school children, I can’t comprehend the rationale behind this reckless decision. I am calling on Governor Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to give parents the option for their children to attend classes virtually at their current schools. I am also calling on elected School Board leaders to disregard this Executive Order and to defy this Governor by continuing to enforce mask mandates for every faculty, staff, and student enrolled in K-12 schools across our state. At some point, we have to draw the line and for me it’s when the safety of our children is intentionally targeted and threatened.”



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