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Parents urged a return to in-person classes at the Metro Nashville Schools office in December. (Photo: John Partipilo / Tennessee Lookout)

Beth Simpson, a mother of five who sits on the Johnson City school board, laid out two stacks of printouts for dramatic effect, one to her right and one on her left, as she addressed an audience of parents growing increasingly impatient on Friday night.

"Most people are here because of masks," Simpson said. "That's the question. I've had over 100 emails. I've had a stack of emails here. These are the emails of people who would like to have mask mandates. These are the emails of people who would not like to have mask mandates."

Not for the first time during the emergency meeting of the largest school district in northeast Tennessee, Simpson was met with angry shouts from the audience: "Show us the emails. Where are they? We can't see them."

"We need to put our children first," Simpson said once order was restored. "It's not popular, it's clear. We may have the state Legislature after us. I'm willing to take the heat. I think the kids are worth it."

The contentious meeting on Friday night in Tennessee's ninth largest city mirrored in tone not only the confrontational school board meeting in Williamson County last week — which ended with an angry group heckling masked attendees as they left, caught on video and capturing a national spotlight — but looked a lot like school board meetings taking place across the state, where a coronavirus surge comes as students return to class.

In Washington County, where Johnson City is located, 50 school-aged children were infected with COVID-19 on Aug. 3, the day before school began.

One week later, 97 kids were positive. By Friday, the number had risen to 137. Fourteen staff members have also tested positive since school began.

In Henry County, board members enacted a mask mandate last week after 135 students were sent home during the first week of school as a result of exposure to children or adults who tested positive. More than two dozen students tested positive in the first week of school.

Students in Shelby, Hancock, Davidson and Hamilton counties are similarly subject to recently enacted mask rules. Hamilton County's mandate came with a parent opt-out option for students, and Gov. Bill Lee on Monday decreed that parents across the state would have that option.

At least 20 Tennessee school districts have attempted to implement some form of mask mandate — including a temporary mandate ultimately enacted Friday by the Johnson City Board of Education that also included an opt-out for parents.

Knox County has thus far declined to enact one. In Wilson County, an emergency school board meeting set for Saturday to discuss COVID safety protocols was abruptly canceled. The county has been named in a lawsuit brought by parents opposed to a mask mandate.

In Johnson City, the school board voted 6-1 in favor of a temporary mask mandate for all students, faculty, staff and volunteers until Sept. 10, when the board will consider extending the rule. The lone dissenter, local physician Dr. Ginger Carter, said there were differing opinions on the efficacy of masks and that "parents have a right to a second opinion."

The mandate includes a no-questions-asked opt-out for parents who do not want their children to wear masks to school, a compromise suggested by school board member Tom Hager at the end of the hourlong meeting.

"I am for parental choice," Hager said to a sustained round of applause from parents in the room.

"Please," Hager said trying to quiet the audience, "because the next thing I say you may not like, so please."

Laying out a temporary mask mandate, Hager said, "I'm trying to give everybody a piece of the pie. And maybe I shouldn't. I don't know. But, look, you've got this group over here upholding parental choice and family choice, and over here, wear a mask. I'm just trying to get to some kind of meeting in the middle."

Read more at tennesseelookout.com.

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