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Federal Education Secretary sends letter to Gov. Lee and Commissioner Schwinn about school mask mandates

The letter said Gov. Lee's decision to ban mask mandates in schools could prevent schools from following rules set out in the American Rescue Plan.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The United States Education Secretary has sent a letter to Governor Bill Lee and the Tennessee Commissioner of Education about his decision to allow parents to opt students out of wearing masks at schools.

Spanish Version: Secretario Federal de Educación envía carta al Gob. Lee y a Comisionada Schwinn sobre mandatos de las mascarillas en las escuelas

Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona asked the governor and Commissioner Penny Schwinn to ensure schools had the ability to make a safe return for students and staff.

Some of the letter can be read below:

Tennessee’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law.

...

This State level action against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appears to restrict the development of local health and safety policies and is at odds with the school district planning process embodied in the U.S. Department of Education’s (Department’s) interim final requirements.

Cardona said that he had learned about the recent executive order "prohibiting local educational agencies (LEAs) from adopting requirements for the universal wearing of masks."

In the letter, he also says that schools that received funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 as well as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds are required to adopt a plan to safely bring students back to school.

Safety recommendations associated with the funds included universal mask-wearing.

Federal authorities said that Gov. Lee's actions could limit schools' ability to follow rules from the American Rescue Plan. The letter also notes that the federal department stands with educators who are working to safely reopen schools.

Cardona said his office is looking to partner with the governor and Schwinn's teams "on any efforts to further our shared goals of protecting the health and safety of students and educators."

He also said that the department will continue monitoring whether Tennessee is meeting its fiscal requirements.

News 4, a sister station in Nashville, reached out to the governor's and Schwinn's offices for comment.

This story was originally reported by WSMV in Nashville.