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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order Monday giving parents statewide the ability to opt out of local mask mandates for public school students, as a group of parents in Hamilton County reiterated their desire for a universal mask requirement.

Hamilton County Schools already offered parents an opt-out form for its new mask requirement for students, and schools spokesperson Cody Patterson said about 10% of families have signed up for the option.

"No one cares about the health and well-being of a child more than a parent," the governor said in issuing his order. "I am signing an executive order today that allows parents to opt their children out of a school mask mandate if either a school board or health board enacts one over a district. Districts will make the decisions they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child's health and well-being."

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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Gov. Bill Lee did not wear a mask at an event last week in Hamilton County. Principal Ruth Pohlman at McConnell Elementary School did.

Lee rejected the idea of a special legislative session to override local mask mandates at schools, and he said most of the COVID-19 cases crowding hospitals across Tennessee are adults.

"Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is in my view the wrong approach," he said Monday afternoon.

Monday morning, Hamilton County parents opposed to an opt-out held a videoconference holding signs reading "protect all of our kids" and "no exceptions. 1 child lost is too many."

Half a dozen parents and two Christian faith leaders shared their families' experiences with COVID-19 exposure since school started and asked questions of the school district, school board and county mayor regarding the mask policy.

"In a community crisis, we are meant to each sacrifice a little to care for the greater common good. COVID has shown us the health of one child depends on the actions of another, and in this community, we shouldn't let anyone opt out of their responsibility to do their part to protect all our neighbors and all of our children in school," parent Jenn Piroth said.

"This is not a debate where there are two equal sides," she said. "There's a side for keeping children safe in school, and families at work, instead of in preventable quarantines, and then there is another side that is putting all of our children in harm's way over ridiculous, political hyperbole."

There are 79 schools and about 44,000 students in the district. According to the district's COVID-19 Data Dashboard for Monday, 809 students and 83 staff members are now quarantining due to COVID-19 exposure.

One of those children is the daughter of parent Justin Wilkins, who said in the meeting that he was notified that the 7-year-old was exposed to COVID-19 at school last week and needs to quarantine until Aug. 24.

"So now, while everyone waits and hopes that she'll be OK, she's back out of school, separated from her friends again, quarantined from her younger brother who doesn't have the option of being vaccinated yet, while my wife and I redouble our work to watch out for her over the next 10 days," Wilkins said during the meeting.

Parents including Wilkins and medical professionals held a similar news conference last Monday calling on the district to require masks, two days prior to the district announcing the mask policy.

The viewpoint of participants in the conferences stands in opposition to a conversation last week between four school board members and board meeting attendees, who turned up at the Hamilton County Board of Education's specially called meeting Thursday to express their disagreement with the mask requirement.

Typical of the anti-mask sentiment is Brent Goulart, who posted on the district's Facebook page in appreciation of the opt-out.

"Thank you for allowing parents to decide if we want our children to wear smothering, bacteria incubator rags, the efficacy of which in child populations is unsupported in scientific study," he wrote. "Hopefully the decision-makers will continue this good policy, and ignore the barrage of emotional, uninformed commentary from the mob of leftist hand-wringers."

At the pro-mask news conference Monday, Jaime Barks, another Hamilton County Schools parent, said her son was quarantined for COVID-19 Friday afternoon after being in school for one day. She said school officials told her to treat the quarantine like a flu absence and that the instructional model for students in quarantine was not clear.

"I don't think they have a really good infrastructure in place to accommodate the amount of quarantines that have happened so quick," Barks said.

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / From left, Orchard Knob Middle School teachers, Christina Manton, Brooklyn Caulder, Ayanna Esdaile, and Elaine Dunn comfort a incoming sixth grader, who said he was "scared." Orchard Knob Middle School started the 2021-2022 school year under a Hamilton County Schools system wide mask mandate on August 12, 2021, because of the surge in the Delta variant of the Coronavirus.

Last year, students could learn in a fully virtual environment through the HCS at Home option, which was discontinued this year. A state board of education policy states that school districts can shift back to the model under certain circumstances, such as the governor declaring a state of emergency or the district providing the department of education with notice and explanation for switching back.

The school board will vote on a new "virtual education program" policy and a "homebound education program" at its meeting Thursday, according to the meeting agenda. The proposed virtual education program policy entails providing virtual courses for students who cannot attend school in-person for a few reasons, including COVID-19 quarantine. It states that students could prove attendance in a few ways such as "participating in synchronous virtual instruction" and "completing work in a learning management system."

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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