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Gov. Lee issues executive order allowing parents to opt kids out of school mask mandates

The governor said he would not call a special session after issuing the executive order.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Governor Bill Lee on Monday signed an executive order allowing parents to opt children out of school mask mandates. This is as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge at record pace across the state.

The governor said he believes parents have the ultimate call for their child's individual health and well-being. The governor said he would not call a special session following the order. 

Spanish Version: Gobernador Lee emite orden ejecutiva que permite a los padres excluir a sus hijos de los mandatos de mascarillas en las escuelas

"Our hospitals are struggling under the weight of COVID but those hospital beds are filled with adults. Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is in my view the wrong approach," he said.

Gov. Lee acknowledged masks provided protection against infection for others, but said he believes it should still be a parental decision and not a government decision.

Cases of COVID-19 have been rising in children across the U.S., but health experts said they are still working to determine if the Delta variant -- which has become the predominant strain and Tennessee and elsewhere-- is more harmful to children.

"It’s frustrating that we’re headed into another school year with these challenges - it’s disheartening that the COVID challenge continues - but I’m proud of Tennesseans who, in spite of suffering, have persevered, and because of their character, there’s great hope," Lee said.

The governor's announcement came just hours after Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said new hospitalizations rose more rapidly than any full month during the pandemic. 

"We've already had more hospitalizations in the first half of August than we have had in any total month in the pandemic," Piercey said.

Patient counts are up for both adults and children. Hospitals are seeing more adult COVID-19 patients. But for pediatric care centers, other maladies such as the RSV virus are primarily responsible for the increase, she said.  

Currently, there are about 2,200 patients in hospitals in Tennessee, she said. About 45 children are in the hospital, she said.

The health commissioner and Governor Lee both urged everyone who has not gotten a COVID-19 vaccination to go ahead and do so.

"The government will not mandate or require anyone to get a vaccine but I encourage you to consider it for yourself," Lee said. "It’s widely available, it’s effective and it’s free."

"It’s convenient, it's safe, it's highly effective and it's not too late," Piercey said.

Trends indicate more Tennesseans are stepping up to get the shot, she said.

Over the past month, authorities have seen week over week vaccination rates increase -- from about 58,000 a week to over 100,000 a week.

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) applauded the governor's decision.

"Gov. Lee’s executive order issued today is good news in affirming a parent’s right to make healthcare decisions for their children. I am hopeful this order can be extended further by curtailing the power of the six independent health departments that can still impose unlimited mandates upon our business community. I feel confident the immediate need for a special session has been averted in the interim by using executive orders. However, the House still stands ready to act if the call comes,” he said.

The Superintendent of Hamblen County Dr. Jeff Perry said this move leaves local school leaders feeling like their hands are tied. “There may be a disconnect between the state and local government in terms of really who has the authority to actually govern schools,” Perry said.

Dr. Perry said the school district decided did not extend a mask mandate into this school year. Now even if the school board needs enforce one, he said, that decision feels overpowered by state. “That’s a decision made at a state level that impacts our ability to do what is medically, socially, educationally sound for our student.”

Most superintendents would agree, he said, these decisions would be best made at the local level and now that most teachers and staff members are vaccinated, “We are seeing that larger numbers of students are actually testing positive,” Perry said.

Third grade parent Nathan Kelly said personal choice would be great if that choice didn't have the possibility of endangering others. "Thinking of this purely as an individual level decision where we can all just do what we want to do to keep ourselves safe our decisions also effect other people and that's a really important factor that I think is missing from the discussion," he said.


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