How Tennesseans reacted to the governor’s order to make masks optional in schools

Elementary students with and without masks sit around a table with a green plastic bin in the middle of the table.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order allowing parents of schoolchildren to opt out of school mask policies. His announcement prompted swift and strong reactions. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order on Monday allowing parents of schoolchildren to opt out of school mask policies. His announcement at an afternoon press conference prompted swift and strong reactions from Tennesseans who remain polarized on the issue. Some commended him for preserving parental choice while others accused him of putting partisan politics above public health. Below are a collection of  reactions from state lawmakers and local residents. 

This story has been lightly edited for style and length.

I feel like the governor is just condemning my grandchildren — two under age 9, one of them with Down syndrome — to needless Covid-19 illness and possible death. He must just not care about small children, if he ever did.

— Anne Carey, grandparent, Nashville

Every child’s situation is different, and parents know what’s best for their children.

— State Sen. Brian Kelsey, Republican, Germantown (Source: Twitter)

It’s just such a crock to say this executive order is about protecting parental choice. There are lots of parents who would choose for their kids to go to a school observing a mask mandate, and Gov. Bill Lee has largely eliminated that option.

— State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Democrat, Nashville (Source: Twitter)

I write this standing in a school short-staffed because three teachers who are parents had to leave to get their children from schools due to quarantined classes. This is not fair to the classes of kids they had to leave nor their own children. This is one many examples that have happened within just the first two weeks of school. Not requiring masks will only make this worse. My child is 11. I fear for her life and the lives of all our children.

— Michelle Armstrong, parent and public education advocate, Shelby County

We simply could not have worse leadership on this.

— State Sen. Heidi Campbell, Democrat, Nashville (Source: Twitter)

I am hopeful this order can be extended further by curtailing the power of the six independent health departments that can still impose unlimited mandates upon our business community.

— State Rep. Cameron Sexton, Republican, Crossville (Source: Twitter)

I could not disagree with this more. Hospitals across Tennessee are at or near capacity. Some hospitals’ pediatric cases doubled in the course of a week. Masks are such a little thing that can protect our kids and teachers. Kids can’t get vaccinated and should be protected at all costs.

— State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, Democrat, Memphis (Source: Twitter)

Gov. Bill Lee is depriving disabled and immunocompromised children of equal educational opportunities in free public schools, as guaranteed by law. Without safety precautions and a virtual option, the school doors are effectively closed to many children.

— State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, Democrat, Nashville (Source: Twitter)

Our Constitution requires government leaders to protect liberties. It does not direct us to protect health. You are responsible for you and your children.

— State Rep. Chris Todd, Republican, Madison County (Source: Twitter)

I totally disagree. Schools should have students wear masks. It is a neighborly and loving thing to do for our community.

— Becky Lloyd, licensed family therapist, Memphis

One of the thoughts I’m really entertaining in terms of my own children is whether or not it would be best to take them out of school for the year, and that’s a difficult decision for me as a parent and a teacher, but I also want them to be alive and healthy. I don’t even know what an alternative would be. But I know them physically being in school is not more important than them being well and alive. It puts parents like me in a really difficult position.

— April Thompson, parent and teacher, Memphis

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