Lee issues order allowing parents to opt students out of school mask mandates

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced an executive order Monday allowing parents to opt out of any school mandates for masking. The announcement comes as Hamblen County saw the number of active COVID-19 cases rise above 600.

Lee issued his order Monday afternoon as the Delta variant of COVID-19 surges across the Lakeway Area and Tennessee, saying it is ultimately the responsibility of parents to care for their child.

“No one cares about the health and well-being of a child more than a parent,” Lee said in remarks Monday. “I am signing an executive order today that allows parents to opt their children out of a school mask mandate if either a school board or health board enacts one over a district.”

The Hamblen County school board has steered clear of any action on mask mandates in the new school year. Dr. Jeff Perry, Hamblen County school superintendent, had said there would be a community forum called before any mask mandate would be put in place. On Monday night, Perry said he believes that is now a moot point.

During a Hamblen County Republican Women’s meeting on Monday night, Perry broached the subject of the mask mandate and the governor’s order.

“I think he kind of resolved that issue and took any authority from local school boards to do that,” Perry said.

Perry told the crowd that there was no mask mandate at the start of last school year before one was put in place over the course of the year. The current policy is that masks are optional for students.

“Now it doesn’t seem that’s an issue that’s going to be in local school board’s hands,” Perry said.

Lee said Monday that parents should have the ultimate say in their child’s care.

“Districts will make the decision they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being,” Lee said.

The Tennessee House of Representatives recently called for a special session about mask mandates in order to pass legislation that would allow parents the right to choose.

State Rep. Rick Eldridge, R-Morristown, signed the letter asking for the special session.

Lee said Monday he would not call a special session and the executive order should suffice.

Lee also acknowledged the toll that the current surge is placing on the hospital system.

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

According to numbers released by the state on Monday, there are currently 15 pediatric cases in ICU and seven children on ventilators within the state.

The decision by Lee also comes as the state issued a press release stating that a third round of vaccine, or booster, is available for those who have moderately or severely compromised immunocompromised individuals. Those doses are for those who have taken the Pfizer or Moderna vaccinations.

Shane Johnston, director of Jefferson County schools, said Tuesday that the Jefferson County school system is stopping contact tracing and will let the health department conduct tracing.

“We are relinquishing contact tracing, we’re turning it back to the health department,” he said.

Johnston said they want school personnel to focus on schools and let the medical professionals do their job.

Children are still being sent home and quarantined, he said, and Center for Disease Prevention and Control guidelines are being followed.

Johnston said they are trying to make up time missed last year while children were in virtual learning and not in classrooms. This is not due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases within schools, he said.

“This is directly related to the thousands of hours missed in instructional learning,” he said.

In Hamblen County, the numbers continue to climb toward highs last seen during the height of the pandemic in December and January. The number of active cases has already surpassed the first surge in Hamblen County, which at its peak was around 500 active cases. At its peak in December, the county almost reached 1,000 active cases before vaccinations became widely available.

The latest surge has been fueled by the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is a more contagious strain of the virus. Latest state figures show that Hamblen County has had a daily case rate of 73.7 cases per day per 100,000 people and a positivity rate of almost 23%.

In comparison, on July 1, the county had a daily case rate of 1.4 cases per day over a seven-day period and there were no positive tests recorded.