Tennessee school districts and charter schools will be banned from issuing mask mandates if legislators adopt an amendment proposed Tuesday during the state’s special legislative session.
Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville presented the amendment during a committee meeting, detouring from the stated agenda for the special session.
Gov. Bill Lee called the session last month following his announcement that Ford Motor Co. would build a new facility in West Tennessee to manufacture its electric pickup trucks. The move is expected to bring nearly 6,000 jobs and a new technical school to the area over the next four years. Since the General Assembly is in recess from May until January, Lee called the special session to ask lawmakers to approve Ford’s incentive package.
For weeks, the Republican governor has sidestepped demands within his party to convene a special session to address school mask and employee vaccine mandates. In a September Twitter post, he stated, “The special session on October 18 will stay focused on next steps for the Memphis Regional Megasite,” referring to the Ford development, “and we’ll stand up for parents in court.”
The state is currently litigating a lawsuit filed by the Shelby County government and three lawsuits from parents across the state who oppose Lee’s executive order allowing parents and their children to opt out of school mask requirements. Unmasked students are more likely to spread the virus and are a health risk to their immunocompromised children, the litigants claim. So far, federal judges have agreed and issued temporary orders restoring county and school mask mandates while the lawsuits proceed.
Frustrated by these rulings, some Republican lawmakers have called for a second special session starting October 27 to enact state laws barring COVID mandates; however, Zachary said that the end of the month is too late.
“Every day we wait, people are losing their jobs; children are being masked against their parents’ wishes,” said Zachary, who acknowledged that any new law may bring new legal challenges.
The Knoxville Republican added that school mask mandates are an unnecessary overreach because no children in Knox County have died from complications of COVID-19.
Memphis Democrat G. A. Hardaway pushed back against that statement.
“I’m grateful that Knox County hasn’t had any children who have passed away from COVID. Unfortunately, I can’t say that about Shelby County. We’ve had families to lose little children as a result of the COVID disease,” he said. “I don’t want to play the odds on the welfare, the health and wellness, or the life of any child.”
Since the pandemic began, 13,034 children in Knox County and 22,967 children in Shelby County have contracted the virus, according to state data. Several studies are underway to measure the prevalence and effects of long-haul COVID in children.
Because of these unknowns, Hardaway stressed the importance of taking precautions.
“Any precautions that I can take, whether it’s for my own children or for the children I’m responsible for as a legislator, I’m compelled to do so,” he said during Tuesday’s committee meeting.
The proposed amendment blocking districts from implementing mask mandates will be attached to the Ford incentive package if the full House and Senate approve it. The measure now moves forward for further discussions and votes. The special session resumes Wednesday at 9 a.m.