Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order that allows parents to opt out of masks for their schoolchildren, limiting the authority of school districts and county and city health departments.
The order was issued after Republicans asked the governor to call a special session that would allow the legislature to take action on the matter, but he has declined to do so.
“Districts will make the decision they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being,” Lee told reporters.
House speaker Cameron Sexton, who wanted the governor to call a special session said that the need for the session had been averted “in the interim” but would like to see more action taken.
“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,” Sexton said.
Of mask mandates in school Lee said, “Right now, some of the greatest frustration is occurring in our K-12 schools, especially around the issue of mask mandates. While local decision-making is important, individual decision-making by a parent on issues regarding the health and well-being of their child is the most important.”
He added, “Our hospitals are struggling under the weight of COVID but those hospital beds are filled with adults. Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is in my view the wrong approach.”
Several school districts, including Nashville Metro and Shelby County, had already put mask mandates in place and officials say they will remain that way until they have had a chance to review the order. One official said, they were given “little prior notice.”
Williamson County Schools also has a mask mandate, but, according to the Tennessean, roughly 20 percent of students, or 3,400, were granted medical or religious exemptions, a number, the paper noted, “that can be attributed in part to efforts by the Williamson County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative parent advocacy group, and Tennessee Stands.”
Elsewhere, the city council in Charleston, South Carolina, voted not to adopt an emergency mask mandate for school and public facilities that would have included children older than 2. Some parents fiercely opposed the mandate. One parent said, “I do not understand how you think they are going to learn to read with a mask on their teacher’s face or their face…they cannot see the enunciation of letters.” The meeting also dealt with a racial conciliation report that was rejected.
Battles over masks, Critical Race Theory, and transgender policies are being waged around the country between parents and school boards. That conflict has translated into 58 recall efforts of school board members in 2021, the most of any year on record.
People yearn to breathe free, and in the era of COVID, that has come to be taken literally, as well as figuratively.
Now that parents are awakening to the harmful ideologies being pushed in schools as well as heavy-handed COVID mitigation policies, they are making their displeasure heard in counties and cities across the country. Fortunately, some school boards and politicians are finally starting to listen and take them seriously.
In this case, if masks were actually effective in fully mitigating the spread of COVID, perhaps these mandates would be viable. Many recent studies have found that masks, particularly paper masks and cloth masks, do very little if anything to stop viral spread. There is some evidence that N95 masks provide the best protection, though still not perfect. Still, schools are not mandating N95 masks, but only requiring some type of face covering.
Protecting people, including children, is important, but do the benefits of mask mandates, particularly in children, outweigh the drawbacks? That doesn’t seem to be a question that many school boards or politicians have been willing to investigate or ask. Most just want to look like they’re doing something helpful, whether that something works or not.
Children need to learn to socialize and learn the English language from their teachers. They also need to become confident and not live with fear every moment of the day. The long-term mental and physical health consequences of forcing children to keep a piece of wet, dirty, snotty cloth over their mouths and noses all day, every day, for an entire school year are unknown, but there is no question that even in the short-term they do have an impact on children’s well-being.
Parents know their children best, and constitutional review has consistently ruled that parents are the ultimate authority in determining what is best for their children’s health, education, and welfare. Therefore, Gov. Lee and like-minded governors, city county councils, and school boards are correct: Parents should be the one to make the final decision on whether or not their child needs to wear a mask at school.