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Gov. Bill Lee signs COVID bill, but Shelby County will keep mask mandate for public schools in place

The COVID-19 was signed into law Friday by Gov. Bill Lee - but a federal judge said Shelby County can keep the public school mask mandate in place.

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Friday, Tennessee Gov. Bill signed a wide-reaching bill strictly limiting what governments and businesses can require to address the COVID-19 pandemic. But Shelby County Schools will keep its mask mandate in place.

A federal judge ruled public schools in Shelby County can/must continue mask mandate DESPITE Governor Lee signing the law which bans school districts and counties from having mask mandates in place statewide (unless severe conditions arise). This impacts ALL public school districts in Shelby County, not just SCS.

The current Shelby County Health Directive requires masks in Shelby County schools.

The law Lee signed takes effect immediately, and some are looking into how to become exempt if they think complying means they could lose federal funding. 

The law largely bars local governments and businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, and only lets public entities — including schools — require masks due to COVID-19 in rare, dire public health scenarios. Shelby County was included in that until the ruling by the federal judge Friday.

Those at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital fear fewer children masked up - and those unvaccinated - will cause a surge in cases and quarantines into the winter months.

"Whatever the rules are, we are going to continue to promote the wearing of masks in schools to families," Dr. Sandy Arnold, Chief of Le Bonheur Children's Hospital Pediatric Infectious Diseases, said Friday. "I have several concerns: one is about kids getting sick, so we will certainly see an increase in spread within schools," Dr. Arnold said.

She added the data is crystal clear about masking benefits for children.

"We have literature that says that schools that enforce masking have fewer outbreaks of COVID-19 than schools that do not," Dr. Arnold said.

RELATED: Tennessee bill prohibits hospitals from restricting dying Covid-19 patients at least one visitor inside hospital

Before that federal judge kept Shelby County's public school mask mandates in place, total active pediatric cases jumped 23% from last week to this week. That's why Dr. Arnold is concerned the winter months across the state could be just as challenging for kids as the previous Delta surge.

"This past summer, this surge really affected children. So these kids, we had the hospital that was full. We had multiple respiratory viruses circulating," Dr. Arnold said. "If your kids are constantly getting sick, they are going to miss a lot of school because quarantine rules are still in place. And they are going to have to get tested, you are going to miss work from them having to stay home," Dr. Arnold said.

Friday, SCS middle school parents were mixed on the mask mandates continuing.

"We don't want that surge to happen because we don't know how it's going to affect the child. Because everybody is different and not everyone is recovering from it," Rachel Mitchell said.

"I don't see a real big issue with it but at the same time, if you know your child is not feeling well, they should be kept at home because it's still out there," Akesha Dixon added.

An attorney representing the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit expects the mask mandates in Shelby County public school districts will continue indefinitely, saying the only way it would be reversed is a ruling in an upcoming appellate or new hearing, or if the Shelby County Health Department lifts mask requirements in schools.