TENNESSEE, USA — In East Tennessee, school districts are reviewing and reevaluating their current mask policies after the governor's announcement Tuesday.
Governor Bill Lee issued Executive Order 80 on April 27, saying some COVID restrictions could be lifted in Tennessee, including mask mandates. The order applies to the 89 counties directed by the Tennessee Department of Health.
Not long after the announcement at the state level, some of the six counties not ruled by the state health department, including Knox County, announced its mask mandate would be lifted.
Tennessee school systems each have the power to create and enforce their own COVID mask policies. While many made mask-wearing optional to begin with at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, others made it mandatory.
Now, districts are calling special Board of Education meetings and discussing the future of mask policies for the remainder of the semester and into the 2021-2022 school year.
According to the Tennessee Code annotated, school systems do have the power to change mask policies on their own because it is similar to a dress code policy.
We reached out to school systems across the region to see where they stand when it comes to reviewing and redoing mask policies.
Anderson County Schools is currently keeping the same mask policy it has had in place all this year. In grades 3-12, students have to wear masks on buses, in hallways and in classrooms where social distancing is not practical. In grades PreK-2, students are required to wear a mask on the bus and at other times to the best of their ability. Staff are required to wear masks in large group gatherings, hallways and in classrooms where social distancing is not practical.
There are plans for a discussion with the school board at the May 6 meeting.
Blount County Schools hasn't made a decision yet on whether or not the policy will change. It is currently reviewing policies related to COVID-19.
The district said in an email, "As far as the 2021-22 school year is concerned, our COVID-19 district team will review policies and provide guidance as needed for our students to begin school in August of 2021."
In Campbell County Schools, masks will now be worn at the individual’s discretion. The district did not have a mask mandate in place at any time during the 2020-2021 school year. Masks were encouraged but not required.
At this time, Cocke County Schools is sticking with its current masking policy. A district representative said the Board of Education sets the policy. The next board meeting is the second Thursday in May.
Cumberland County Schools has a special called board meeting Wednesday, April 28 to discuss the mask policy. The district said the determination will be made at that time.
In Hamblen County, Director of Schools Dr. Jeff Perry said the governor's announcement did not impact the district that much.
"Nothing for sure at this point, but we will probably continue the mask mandate for the rest of this school year," Perry said. "Probably not have it next year. May be strongly encouraged but will not have a mask mandate for the 21-22 school year probably!"
On May 10, the school board voted to keep the mask mandate in place for the rest of the school year. Students will be allowed to take their masks off outdoors where social distancing is possible.
When summer school arrives, Perry said masks will be optional -- so long as COVID-19 cases remain low.
In Jefferson County, the school system has decided to continue to follow the current set of mask guidelines.
Director of Schools Dr. Shane Johnston said the district will review the policy in the next couple of weeks.
Currently, adults in buildings must wear masks when social distancing can’t be maintained. Students in grades 6-12 have the same expectations as adults.
Masks are recommended for elementary students.
Updated guidance for families for the summer programs and the 2021-2022 school year will come in May.
Knox County is calling a special Board of Education meeting on Friday, April 30 to discuss the mask mandate. As of right now, the district is keeping the current required mask policy in place for students and staff.
Superintendent Bob Thomas said KCS is following guidance from the local and state health departments as well as the CDC.
"Until the board takes some action to abandon that policy, I guess we will follow that until it sunsets August 1; however, as we’ve seen today, there could be changes and there could be changes within the next 24 to 48 hours," Thomas said.
Loudon County Schools is sticking with its policy to recommend, but not require, face coverings. It said the governor's announcement isn't impacting procedures.
Maryville City Schools has already put mask changes in motion. It notified parents on Sunday, April 25 that the mask mandate for K-7 bus riders ends on Friday, April 30.
The district is also lifting the mask mandate for staff in grades 4-7 on April 30. It lifted the mask mandate for staff in elementary (K-3) a couple of weeks ago.
Mask mandates are still in place for staff and students in grades 8-12. At this time, no additional changes are expected for the current school year through May 20.
As for next year, a district spokesperson said, "We are working from the optimistic stance that schools will function normally. Fingers crossed for that to be our reality."
Oak Ridge Schools is still discussing the path forward on a mask policy. It does not have a change to announce at this time
The Sevier County Schools mask policy has not changed so far, but there are plans for the school board to meet and discuss possible adjustments for the 2021-2022 school year.
A district spokesperson said, "Despite the demands that this school year has placed on our parents, students, and staff members, everyone has risen to the challenge, we have had a successful year, and we look forward to a strong finish."
A district spokesperson for Union County said the mask mandate will stay in place for now. It is on the school board agenda for discussion in May.
"This goes for summer school and opening school in August. It is probably too early to declare what exactly August will look like at this time."
We are still waiting on responses from school districts not listed here. This article will be updated as new information is released.