Tennessee Gov. Lee: School districts can impose student mask mandates but 'nothing's off the table' in state halting it

Staff photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee poses with a young admirer during a July 9, 2021, stop in Gainesboro, Tenn., celebrating the 225th anniversary of Tennessee's admission as the 16th U.S. state.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Lee says "nothing's off the table" when it comes to the possibility of a special legislative session suggested by House Speaker Cameron Sexton to strip Tennessee public school systems of their ability to require students to wear masks.

Public health experts have suggested face coverings for the coming school year to protect against the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 12,700 people in Tennessee.

Lee acknowledged elected school boards have the authority to impose mask mandates for students and faculty. But he said county health departments have no business trying to require K-12 schools, preschools and day care centers to do so, as the Shelby County Health Department did last week in Memphis.

"I'll be working with the legislature over the next days," Lee told reporters Monday. "There'll be a lot of conversations about that."

Asked about businesses requiring vaccinations for workers or for visitors to their facilities, the governor said, "I think that requiring vaccinations is generally a bad idea, for businesses or for anybody. I don't think it's a good idea. I haven't seen any proposals or had anyone make suggestions about that."

Regarding the prospect of a special session, Lee said he and Sexton, a Crossville Republican, have yet to discuss whether the speaker will specifically ask for that.

Sexton surprised onlookers last week during a news conference with Lee regarding a major decline in student test scores last year during the pandemic when the speaker rattled a political saber at the Shelby County Health Department and Metro Nashville schools. The systems announced new student mask policies amid a rise in coronavirus infections in Tennessee, including increases in children's hospitalizations. It's part of a national surge attributed to the new, more contagious delta variant.

The governor said, "I think Shelby County handled that the wrong way. School districts are the ones who have been given the authority to make that decision."

The governor also said, "Those school boards should listen to the parents, and parents should have an option in that."

He did not say what should happen if parents are divided.

The governor last week came under fire from Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Hendrell Remus, who accused Lee of spineless leadership.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, stated last week that although 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."

Six counties so far have new mask requirements, including tiny, rural Hancock County in Northeast Tennessee.

Hamilton County Schools are recommending masks for students and staff as schools open Thursday but officials are not requiring their use.

Last week, state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said new COVID-19 cases in children nearly doubled in a week - from 1,800 cases on July 18 to 3,200 cases on July 25. She expects the trend to continue, pointing to recent surges in COVID-19 cases in "peer states," including Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida.

Last year, Lee and his state Health Department avoided issuing mask requirements in the public arena and businesses themselves. Instead, the governor delegated his authority on the matter to county mayors, giving them the responsibility to deal with the issue.

He revoked that authority for counties in the spring of this year, but school boards retain authority over their student and teacher populations.

As for what local school boards should do, Lee said, "I would recommend they listen to the parents, and I would suggest that no one cares more about the children of this state than the parents. That no one knows better what's best for a child than that child's parents."

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