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Gov. Lee makes masks optional for students
Bill Lee
Bill Lee

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order Monday letting parents opt their children out of mask mandates in K-12 schools after a few school districts issued mask requirements.

Executive Order No. 84 states in part, “… a student’s parent or guardian shall have the right to opt out of any order or requirement for a student in kindergarten through twelfth grade to wear a face covering at school, on a school bus, or at school functions, by affirmatively notifying in writing the local education agency or personnel at the student’s school.”

If school officials were to enforce a mask requirement, Lee said, “I suppose that would be against the law and we would see what would happen there.”

Warren County Schools had not enacted a mask mandate for this school year, but had established a system of green, yellow and red categories in which to operate depending on the COVID rates in our community.

Under green, there would be no restrictions. Yellow would indicate a higher level of COVID cases and require a few more limitations about in-school gatherings. 

Red would make facemasks a requirement and forbid any school assemblies.

Warren County Schools sent out an automated message Sunday night saying COVID numbers had put the school system in the red zone and masks would be required on Tuesday if numbers did not decrease. Numbers did decrease and the school system went back to yellow, which does not require masks.

As a result of the governor’s executive order, Director of Schools Grant Swallows said school officials are working on a procedure to implement “should we move into the red zone once again.”

The Standard posted the news of Executive Order No. 84 on our Facebook page Monday afternoon and there were comments from both sides.

Some readers praised Gov. Lee for his “common sense” and called the executive order a “win for freedom.”

On the other side, one reader said the move would close schools again due to high COVID infection rates and one reader said “Governor Lee doesn’t care about our children.”

During his term, Gov. Lee has always stressed that less government is the best government. In issuing his executive order, Lee indicated he thought beliefs of the parents on the facemask issue should be given top priority. 

“Right now, some of the greatest frustration is occurring in our K-12 schools, especially around the issue of mask mandates,” Lee said in a news release. “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.”

With the executive order, Lee said he will not call a special legislative session requested by Republican House lawmakers to limit the authority of local officials to make rules aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, which has seen a resurgence in Tennessee and around the nation.

All 73 Republicans in the state House signaled support for a special session last week, and a handful of school board meetings have become contentious as some parents fight mask mandates for their children. 

But the Senate’s Republican leader, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, had said he trusts locally elected school boards to set COVID-19 health rules for schools.

McNally on Monday called Lee’s order an “appropriate compromise that strikes a proper balance between freedom and public health.”

Gov. Lee’s order lets parents opt out if either a school board or a health department enacts a mask requirement over a school district.

The move drew sharp criticism from Democrats. They noted schools are already reporting significant COVID-related absences and the state is offering the National Guard as staffing reinforcements at overwhelmed hospitals.

“It’s pretty tough to swallow that the governor is using the ‘emergency powers’ statute to mandate that the emergency response be weaker?” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro said on Twitter.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.