Although Gov. Bill Lee wants to back off of local mask mandates and COVID-related business restrictions, most Tennessee school leaders expect to continue mask and social distancing requirements for students and staff for the rest of the academic year.
Amid the global pandemic, the governor declared Tuesday that Tennessee is no longer in a public health crisis, and he signed an executive order removing the authority of most county mayors to require face coverings.
"After more than a year of public-led health interventions, we're in a different season," said Lee, who has never issued a statewide mask mandate but allowed local officials to order them. "It's time to shift our focus now more toward recovery and not restrictions."
Following the Republican governor's announcement, his press secretary, Casey Black, clarified that school systems continue to have the authority to set and enforce policies on their campuses.
But Lee's declaration could make it harder for school leaders to get families to encourage their students to follow federal guidelines on masking and social distancing for important events ahead. This spring, students are taking their state tests in person, and schools are planning how to host proms, graduations and end-of-year programs.
Some parents quickly took to social media platforms Tuesday to call on district leaders to peel back mask requirements in schools, too.
"Parents, get together and go to your school board, insist they remove the mask mandate!" wrote Ashley Wallace, whose comments on the governor's Facebook announcement echoed the sentiments of dozens of other parents.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still urges schools to prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing.
Masking policies vary among Tennessee's 147 school districts. Many, including Hamilton County Schools, have required face coverings during the pandemic. Some have not, and still others allow students and staff to remove masks if they are socially distanced.
Those policies are not likely to change immediately, especially as districts work to follow CDC guidelines, said Dale Lynch, executive director of the state superintendents organization.
"Our school leaders want to continue their current health and safety protocols for the remainder of the academic year because it has gone well," Lynch said. "Students, faculty and staff understand what those restrictions are now, and there's not a desire to change course with just weeks left to go."
Public health policies for summertime academic programs may be another conversation, he added.
"The key is that superintendents and school boards need to be empowered to make the best decisions to keep their students and staff safe. That's how we've been able to reopen schools, and that's how we're going to be able to plan for summer learning camps," Lynch said.
Asked if the state education department expects to release new guidelines in response to the governor's latest order, a spokeswoman responded that masking in schools remains a "local decision."
"The department encourages school districts to make policies that are aligned to their local communities," said Victoria Robinson, the department's director of communications.
Large districts in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga are among those planning to continue masking requirements for the remainder of the school year.
"If the level of community spread for COVID-19 remains moderate, we hope that into the summer and next school year face coverings will not be needed to mitigate COVID-19 spread," said a social media post by Hamilton County Schools.
Many smaller school systems in suburban and rural Tennessee are also continuing to require masks.
The head of Weakley County Schools, with 3,900 students and 10 schools in northwest Tennessee, said his students have been wearing masks since the first school bell rang last August.
"We all look forward to the day when we're not wearing masks, but we're not out of the woods yet," Superintendent Randy Frazier said.
"We're still seeing some COVID cases and people having to quarantine," he continued. "We just don't want our students to miss out on final exams, proms and graduations because we stopped short of the finish line with what seems to be working."
Lee said Tennesseans who want to continue wearing masks can do so as the state takes steps to get back to normal.
"It's time for celebrations and weddings and conventions and concerts and parades and proms and everything in between, to happen without limits on gathering sizes or other arbitrary restrictions on those events," Lee said at a news conference.
The change of course — which also drops reopening guidelines for businesses and urges large counties to lift mask mandates by Memorial Day — comes while Tennessee COVID-19 outbreaks are among the nation's highest. Meanwhile, its vaccination rates are among the lowest to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. Almost 43% of adults in Tennessee have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with nearly 54% nationally.
Tennessee is the latest state to back away from COVID-19 restrictions. At least six, including Alabama and Mississippi, have lifted mask mandates, while businesses in Texas opened at 100% capacity last month.