Tennessee Republican House and Senate speakers split on need to bar local school mask requirements

State Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, addresses House members after being sworn in as speaker during a special session of the Tennessee House on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton says he will ask Gov. Bill Lee, a fellow Republican, to call lawmakers into special session if local school districts impose mask mandates, segregate students based on vaccination status or close schools amid a state surge in coronavirus infections.

But Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, said Tuesday that while he is "firmly against a statewide mask mandate, I trust locally elected school boards to do what is necessary to keep their students healthy and their doors open.

"While I would have to see the specific proposal, I have always been in favor of school choice, pandemic or no pandemic," McNally added in his statement, released Tuesday.

Sexton issued his threat Monday during a news conference with Lee and state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn where officials released new data showing sharp declines in student test scores amid COVID-19 school closures and the turn to online efforts to provide student instruction.

"Students need and must be in in-person learning in the classrooms," the Crossville Republican told reporters as Lee stood close by. "I sure hope that school systems do not require a mask mandate for those students. And if they do, I'm going to ask the governor for a special session."

"We can listen to health care people," Sexton said. "You can listen to the economists. But at the end of the day we're elected and we make the decisions that we feel are best based on the information we have. I appreciate their opinion, but the data in my opinion does not support schools mandating, based on the risks, students wear masks every single day."

McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider later noted that if Lee decides to call a special session, McNally "will work with him, Speaker Sexton and all members of the General Assembly to address any issues mentioned in the call."

Shelby County school officials have already announced they will require mask use this school year in the district, which includes Memphis. Metro Nashville school officials are still discussing mask requirements, but local Democratic lawmakers are urging the district to impose them because of the rise in infections due to the new delta variant.

photo Tennessee Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, presides over the Tennessee Senate on the first day of the legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Both counties are under Democratic control in a largely Republican-run state and often find themselves targets of the GOP super-majority in the General Assembly.

No other districts, including in Hamilton County, are known to be considering mask mandates.

"Masks have been optional for all students and staff since June 1," Hamilton County Schools spokesman Cody Patterson stated via email Tuesday. "Though masks aren't required, we are strongly recommending them, which aligns with the CDC's latest guidance and our local health department's guidance."

Tennessee's COVID-19 cases have exploded by more than 850% in the past month as the highly contagious delta variant burns through a predominately unvaccinated population.

The state's seven-day average for new cases was 2,324 per day as of Aug. 2, with a statewide test positivity rate over 15%. This time last month, Tennessee was averaging 244 new cases a day with a positivity rate below 3%.

On Monday, 1,244 Tennesseans were hospitalized due to the coronavirus - a 538% jump from the recent low of 195 on July 4.

State Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey told reporters Monday that the department updated its K-12 guidance last week, describing it as "pretty much" the same as last year.

One notable addition is those who are vaccinated are exempt from quarantine if they are asymptomatic after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, said Piercey, a physician who recently came under a national spotlight after she fired her vaccine chief, Dr. Michelle "Shelley" Fiscus. Fiscus incurred many GOP lawmakers' wrath as the department sought to directly reach out to minors with advertising promoting vaccinations.

Piercey, whose comments came before Sexton's, said, "there are a lot of school districts right now that are contemplating mask requirements. I will remind you that that is a local decision for school boards, and there really is not a one-size fits-all policy. This is something that school boards need to decide is best for them in their communities.

"However," Piercey added, "that needs to be decided in the context that vaccine is available for children down to age 12, and vaccine is very effective in preventing that, as we've already discussed. And likewise, masks do protect unvaccinated children."

She noted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics "have recommended masking in children, and so my encouragement to school boards is to look at those national sources, to remind parents that children down to age 12 can be vaccinated and that's the single best tool we have."

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden cautioned Republican governors who have moved to ban mask mandates and pleaded they "at least get out of the way" of schools, businesses and other entities that want to impose coronavirus-related requirements.

"We need leadership from everyone, and if some governors aren't willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic, then they should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it," Biden said in a speech from the White House.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 615-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.