Tennessee governor weighs whether to call special legislative session to hobble school mask mandates

Gov. Bill Lee speaks with reporters about COVID mask mandates after giving remarks to Tennessee emergency management officials meeting in Franklin, Tennessee, on August 9, 2021. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

Gov. Bill Lee is considering convening a special legislative session to address charges of “overreach” by local officials as a growing number of Tennessee school districts require students and staff to wear masks.

The governor received a letter Wednesday from House Speaker Cameron Sexton and signed by his entire Republican caucus asking for an opportunity to “address misdirected and mandated responses to COVID-19 by local entities and officials.”

“We are reviewing the letter and will have more to say soon,” said Casey Black, Lee’s press secretary, on Thursday.

The decision could set the stage for lawmakers to limit avenues available to local officials responding to the surging infection rate for children with COVID’s more contagious delta variant. Children under 12 aren’t eligible for vaccinations. 

School boards, as well as six independent health departments, currently have authority in Tennessee to require masks in schools, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But both Sexton and the governor have said parents should decide whether face coverings work for their students. 

Last week, Sexton threatened to push for voucher legislation that would let parents move their children and taxpayer funding to private schools if their local public schools require masks. And on Monday, Lee told reporters that “nothing’s off the table” to address the latest pandemic battle putting schools in the crossfire.

Rep. Mark White, who chairs the House Education Committee, said the odds for a special session are 50-50.

“I think the House is on board, but I haven’t heard of movement from the Senate. We’ll see where it goes,” White said Thursday.

The Memphis Republican signed Sexton’s letter in response to hundreds of emails and calls to his office, mostly from constituents who want masks to be optional. 

“We’re a divided population right now, with people very angry on both sides,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea for the legislature, as a representative body, to come together to try to find some kind of solutions.”

The GOP-controlled legislature could pass laws to punish districts that issue mask mandates by taking away state funding, as Florida’s governor is threatening to do, or to strip away the authority of independent health departments.

But Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis, said the legislature should not do anything that could extend a pandemic that to this point has claimed the lives of nearly 13,000 Tennesseans.

“We cannot support a special session where the controlling party is only concerned with punishing private business owners and school districts for exercising medically appropriate precautions to keep people safe,” Akbari tweeted on Wednesday.

At the beginning of August, only Shelby County Schools in Memphis was requiring masks for the new academic year. But at least 13 other districts have since joined the state’s largest district in that policy, including its counterparts in Nashville and Chattanooga. 

The list of districts with mandates includes the governor’s home school system in Williamson County, where an explosive school board meeting on Tuesday night erupted into shouts and threats from anti-maskers against doctors and nurses who spoke in favor of a mandate. 

Six small school systems in the Memphis suburbs also have issued mandates in compliance with last week’s order from Shelby County health officials to require face coverings inside of all school buildings.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who leads the Senate, has said the decision about mask mandates should lie with local school boards, but he declined Thursday to say whether he supports a special session.

“Amid all the controversy regarding masks, vaccine passports and the like, we appear to have lost sight of the one thing that truly matters: keeping children in the classroom so they can learn,” McNally said in a statement.

If a special session is convened, the Oak Ridge Republican pledged to keep the focus on what’s best for education.

White said any special session on school masks needs to happen before Labor Day.

“Things are kind of getting out of hand,” he said, referring to the Williamson County school board meeting that made national news and drew a public rebuke from President Joe Biden.

“It’s like we’re in a fast-moving canoe going down rapids and just trying to hang on,” White said.

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