School mask mandates compel Tennessee Gov. Lee to walk a tightrope as election year approaches

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee stands alone and masked a podium with the U.S. flag to his left and the state flag to his right.
Letting families opt out of school mask mandates may be bad public health policy, but it could be good politics for Gov. Bill Lee. (Tennessee Photo Services)

Letting families opt out of school mask mandates may be bad public health policy, but it could be good politics for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

As his 2022 re-election bid approaches, the first-term Republican governor is walking a political tightrope to maintain a strong voter base in his GOP-dominant state, where debate is escalating over whether students should have to wear a piece of cloth to protect against the coronavirus. 

Lee’s mixed public messaging reflects his political quandary. 

The governor says a mask is an effective tool to keep students learning in person, but he also insists that parents know best whether to send their child to school in one. He recently extended his executive order allowing families to opt out of local school mask mandates.

Even so, a vocal right-wing faction of Republicans are angry the governor hasn’t taken action against about a dozen districts that are defying his order. They’re also upset that the governor is putting off their calls for a special session to let the GOP-controlled legislature pass an outright ban of such mandates.

“The governor is between a rock and a hard place,” said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. “Even though he understands the science, a lot of people who support him don’t, and many of them still think COVID is a myth.”

Bad COVID statistics, but good poll numbers

Tennessee’s COVID numbers have dropped recently, but the state still nearly leads the nation in cases per capita — and COVID-related school closures since kicking off the academic year in August. Only 47.5% of Tennesseans are fully vaccinated, compared with about 57% nationally, while more than 15,000 Tennesseans have died of the virus since the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, anti-masking protesters have disrupted numerous school board meetings, including threats to medical professionals arguing in favor of face coverings in Williamson County, south of Nashville. In the Knoxville area, some people against masks have taunted masked students entering their schools and held up signs calling them “SHEEP” for complying with district rules.

A recent national study shows that enforcing school mask mandates help reduce the spread of COVID, but the governor hasn’t publicly shamed anti-mask bulliers. Vanderbilt’s Geer says that’s because he and other Tennessee Republicans are accommodating extreme factions to maintain the party’s dominance.

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“I think Bill Lee’s fundamental instinct is to be civil, but it’s hard because he’s got a lot of people who support him who are in a fighting mood right now,” Geer said. “They don’t want to be civil.”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs a House education committee, believes the governor’s measured responses aim to de-escalate hostility.

“Anything that any of us says can throw gas on the fire to one group,” White said.

Even as Lee gets blasted by extreme conservatives, they share common ground in their criticism of courts that have blocked the governor’s mask opt-out order in three of the state’s most populated counties. 

In separate cases, three federal judges agreed with some parents that letting some students ditch their masks violates federal law by creating unsafe learning environments for students with disabilities who are more at risk of severe illness from COVID. Attorney General Herbert Slatery Lee is appealing two of those cases.

In addition, Tennessee is one of six states under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over whether efforts to restrict school mask requirements constitutes a civil rights violation for students with disabilities.

Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, believes both developments may actually help Lee at the polls.

“Being attacked by Joe Biden or having your policies overturned by federal judges — who many conservatives view as activists legislating from the bench — probably only helps Gov. Lee with his base,” Syler said. “It makes those voters more willing to support Bill Lee.”

Since Lee took office in 2019, he’s remained popular with his base, according to a statewide poll of mostly conservative voters.

He’ll just need to keep up that momentum until the primary election in August.

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“He would like to be the only Republican name on the ballot without someone challenging him from his own party,” said Syler, adding that a primary win in deep red Tennessee essentially ensures victory in the general election since Democrats have struggled to mount a formidable statewide challenge in the last decade. 

Politics of appeasement?

Lee’s decisions undercutting school mask mandates flies in the face of the traditional conservative principle of local control, but that hasn’t seemed to hurt him in the wake of a Donald Trump presidency that eschewed long-held Republican doctrines. In August, Trump endorsed Lee, which has helped the governor quell critics spreading false claims that Lee is opening “quarantine camps” and having the National Guard force vaccines on citizens.

On the left, Lee continues to be criticized as a weak leader who favors political advice over science and capitulates to those who shout the loudest, whether it’s over mitigation of the pandemic or banning anything that resembles critical race theory in classrooms.

“It’s clear that the governor and way too many other leaders are appeasing the politics of the moment and placating anger that’s being ginned up in conspiracy theories found on Facebook,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville.

“I feel genuinely terrible for our students because, after the last 18 months, the last thing that schools needed was to become just another political battleground. But that’s exactly what has happened,” he said.

To push back, families of students with disabilities have effectively used the courts to challenge Lee’s waffling on school mask mandates. Their vehicle? Federal laws dating to 1973 that require the government to provide reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities.

“It seems like a reasonable accommodation to require masking when the negative sides of masking are so minimal and the potential benefits are undeniable,” said Nicole Tuchinda, a University of Memphis law professor who specializes in health law.

“I’m happy that the judges are applying the law to protect all children, not just those with disabilities, because reasonable accommodations require universal masking and they’re ultimately protecting the public health,” she continued. 

“These judges are getting it right,” added Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton, a pediatrician and health law expert at Vanderbilt. 

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“We do have substantial freedoms in our country, but we do not have the right to hurt other people. Our laws don’t give people the right to put others at risk,” Clayton said. 

Having his policies struck down by the courts doesn’t appear to be making Lee second guess himself.

“He’s trying to strike a balance of both leading and listening,” said Vanderbilt’s Geer, “because any politician who doesn’t pay attention to public opinion will end up not being a politician for very long.”

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