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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton speaks during a news conference at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton and his entire Republican Caucus on Wednesday asked Gov. Bill Lee in a letter to call a special COVID-19 session to block what they charged is school and other local officials' "overreach" by requiring students or business patrons to wear masks.

The letter states lawmakers should convene to "address misdirected and mandated responses to COVID-19 by local entities and officials. It is of the utmost urgency to move quickly due to the potential of significant harm to Tennesseans."

Lee spokeswoman Casey Black said, "We are currently reviewing the request."

Sexton earlier this week telegraphed his plan to seek a special session, charging that school boards in Nashville and Memphis as well as the Shelby County Health Department had overstepped their authority with mask mandates.

Lee demurred at the time, saying locally elected school boards can make such decisions but also noting that "nothing's off the table."

Hamilton County Schools have announced a mask requirement for staff and students, although parents can opt their children out.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican speaker, has said that although he opposes mask mandates, "I trust locally elected school boards to do what is necessary to keep their schools open and their doors open."

Still, McNally has not opposed a special session. He had no immediate comment Wednesday about House Republicans' unanimous request. McNally's GOP Caucus is divided on the issue, but the majority of them have stated publicly they believe Tennesseans should get vaccinated against the resurgent virus powered by the new delta variant.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Raumesh Akbari said, "We cannot support a special session where the controlling party is only concerned with punishing private business owners and school districts for exercising medically appropriate precautions to keep people safe. This pandemic has claimed the lives of nearly 13,000 Tennesseans, and we should all be fighting the virus — not playing politics. The special session our families deserve would focus on affordable health care through Medicaid expansion."

In the letter, the GOP lawmakers stated, "We believe there is a need to curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials, confirm a parent's right to make decisions that impact the mental and physical health of their children."

They also call on the state to "provide support and direction to schools to ensure educators are properly compensated for COVID-19 leave, and protect all Tennesseans from misdirected mandates designed to limit their ability to make their own decisions."

The letter comes after the Williamson County school board on Monday voted to require masks in elementary schools despite heated opposition from a number of attendees. News and other accounts depicted mask opponents shouting and threatening physicians and other medical professionals who spoke in favor of such requirements.

At least two rural school districts, Hancock and Henry counties, have moved to impose mask requirements.

If Lee opts not to call a special session, Tennessee lawmakers have another route to get there. But it requires the signatures of two-thirds of members from both the House and the Senate.

With all 73 House GOP members aboard on the letter, the route to their getting there if Lee refuses could be fairly easy if those members stick to their positions. Democrats only have 26 members.

The 33-member Senate has 27 GOP members with just six Democrats. But a majority of Republican senators have been more concerned about COVID-19, signing an open letter last month calling on the public to take the vaccines to prevent infections. They might oppose the special session.

Along with the Democrats, that could keep proponents from hitting the two-thirds, 22-member constitutional requirement to call themselves into session.

House members signing the letter urging Lee to call the special session included several physicians, one of whom had his own battle with COVID-19, and trained nurses, including Reps. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and Esther Helton, R-East Ridge.

Others included House Finance Chair Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and Rep. Joan Carter, R-Ooltewah.

Also signing the letter was Rep. David Byrd, a Waynesboro Republican who exerienced a near-death experience with COVID-19 that ultimately resulted in a liver transplant.

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

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