Poll finds Tennessee school mask attitudes, practices, vary by region

Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Orchard Knob Middle School's sixth grade assistant principal, Travis Miller, right, directs students on Aug. 12, 2021.
Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Orchard Knob Middle School's sixth grade assistant principal, Travis Miller, right, directs students on Aug. 12, 2021.

Most Tennessee parents are sending their children to school wearing masks, and despite state law essentially banning mask mandates in public schools, most parents report that their child's school requires masks. The findings are part of the Vanderbilt Child Health Poll, an annual survey that seeks parents' feedback on the well-being of Tennessee children.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County has no plans to reinstate mask mandates amid COVID case surge)

The poll, conducted in late fall 2021, sampled 1,026 parents and found that region, race and ethnicity influenced many parents' opinions about COVID-19 safety protocols, with Black parents and West Tennessee parents having a stronger preference for safety measures.

"While leaders need to take these differences of opinion into account, the guiding principle in setting school policies should be the well-being of all children," said Dr. Joe Zickafoose, a pediatrician at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt and one of the poll's leading researchers.

"Regardless of where we live in Tennessee, it's important for everyone to remember and recognize that every school has at least a few children with underlying conditions that put them at high risk of severe COVID-19, and we know that it takes multiple prevention efforts to keep them safe in school," he added.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools says it can't enforce COVID-19 quarantines of individuals as a result of new state laws)

The Vanderbilt findings on Tennessee parents' divided view about masking complement the Momentive and Axios poll from the beginning of the school year that sampled 38,251 people nationwide and found that 56% of Tennessee respondents supported mask mandates for all students and staff.

The divided views that both polls capture may reflect the conflicting COVID-19 policies that abound in Tennessee as the state's Republican lawmakers enacted a law to restrict masks mandates while federal judges issued orders blocking it.

Researchers conducted the Vanderbilt poll as some of the legal challenges unfolded, but before the rise of the omicron variant that has caused a spike in pediatric COVID cases statewide. Some key findings in the Vanderbilt poll include:

- 53% of Tennessee parents reported that their children's schools have a mask mandate in place.

- 67% send their children to school in masks.

- 54% said that students are safer in school when teachers and staff wear masks.

- 40% agreed - and the same percentage disagreed - that schools should require COVID vaccines for all school staff, while 20% were indifferent.

To see more results, visit childpolicy.org/poll.

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters.

(READ MORE: Law limiting Tennessee school mask mandates still on hold)