Tennessee governor extends his school mask opt-out order

A mask sits next to a student as they complete a worksheet. The photo is zoomed in on the worksheet and the student’s hands.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee extended his mask opt-out order on Friday, but federal judges continue to allow school mask mandates. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Friday extended his executive order allowing parents to opt out of school mask requirements. The extension of Executive Order 84, which was set to expire, will stay in effect until Nov. 19. The order remains at the center of multiple lawsuits across the state. 

The extension comes just days after state lawmakers passed legislation threatening to withhold funding from public schools that issue mask mandates without severe conditions present. The bill defines “severe conditions” as a 14-day county average of at least 1,000 new Covid infections for every 100,000 residents. Shelby County, which has nearly a million residents, currently has a 14-day average of 86 new infections, according to the health department.

The bill, passed by the Republican supermajority in the late-October special session, is headed to the governor’s desk, and many expect him to sign it into law. Lee has never vetoed a bill.

Shelby County Schools spokesperson Jerica Phillips said the state’s largest school district is still reviewing the legislation. 

“We recognize it has not yet taken effect, as it awaits signature by the governor,” Phillips said. “We intend to share updates with employees and families as we learn more.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics endorse universal mask-wearing in schools, and polls show most Americans approve of it, too. But the issue remains hotly contested in Tennessee and has become part of the current education culture war, which includes debate over critical race theory

The state is currently litigating a lawsuit filed by the Shelby County government and lawsuits from parents across the state who oppose Lee’s opt-out order. The litigants say unmasked students are more likely to spread the coronavirus and pose a health risk to their immunocompromised children. Federal judges have agreed and issued temporary orders restoring county and school mask mandates while the lawsuits proceed.

In addition to the mask mandate lawsuits, the state is also fighting lawsuits filed by parents, administrators, and education advocates regarding school funding and a new lawsuit filed on Thursday over the state’s policy restricting the participation of transgender athletes in school sports.

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