This story was updated at 5:43 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, with a response from the Lee administration.
NASHVILLE — President Joe Biden has directed U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to weigh legal action against six more Republican governors, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, that the president says are trying to prevent local school districts from imposing COVID-19 mask requirements for students to help thwart the spread of infections.
During a White House news conference, Biden said, "We're not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children."
Biden, a Democrat, said he is directing Cardoza "to take additional steps to protect our children. This includes using all of his oversight authorities and legal action if appropriate against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local schools officials and educators."
Besides Tennessee, Biden and his administration also warned governors and state education officials in Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah not to interfere with local education officials' efforts to maintain school health safety. The administration has previously warned Florida and Texas.
Lee's office on Thursday posted a response on social media: "Regarding the Biden Administration letter: Parents know better than the government what's best for their children."
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lee's fellow Republicans in the GOP-run General Assembly were positioning for a special legislative session to ban mask mandates by local school districts.
Lee on Monday took action that might quell that effort, signing an executive order mandating that schools allow parents and guardians the ability to opt out of any mask requirements.
"Speaker Sexton continues to support a parent's right to make health care decisions for their children regardless of what President Biden says," Sexton spokesman Doug Kufner said in an email to the Times Free Press. "As Speaker Sexton previously said, the House stands ready to act if the call for a special session comes. All options are on the table, and by all, the speaker means all."
Nashville and Memphis schools are operating under mask requirements for students and have so far refused to comply with Lee's Executive Order 84.
Hamilton County Schools' policy already allowed parents to opt their children out of wearing a mask, even before Lee's order.
"Surprise, surprise!" Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis attorney, said in a social media post. "The EO [executive order] allowing parents to opt their kids out of mask requirements likely runs afoul of federal law. Our school districts need the discretion to implement policies to keep kids safe and in school. That should be our only focus."
In his letter to Lee and state Education Secretary Penny Schwinn, Secretary Cardoza said he was aware of "Tennessee's actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
The secretary said this "puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district's authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law."
Cardoza criticized Lee's order prohibiting local educational agencies from adopting requirements for the universal wearing of masks.
"State-level action against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appears to restrict the development of local health and safety policies and is at odds with the school district planning process embodied in the U.S. Department of Education's interim final requirements," he wrote.
The secretary noted the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which is providing $2.5 billion to Tennessee, requires each school district receiving funds "to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services."
His letter noted that the plan is supposed to address CDC recommendations on such matters as the "universal and correct wearing of masks."
"The department stands with the dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction," Cardoza added.
Cardoza said while he is "eager to partner with Tennessee on any efforts to further our shared goals of protecting the health and safety of students and educators," he also cautioned the department "will continue to closely review and monitor whether Tennessee is meeting all of its federal fiscal requirements. It's critical that we do everything in our power to provide a safe environment for our students and staff to thrive."
Lee and his fellow Republicans, including House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker, are also facing heat from Tennessee-based health care providers, 5,241 of whom signed on to a statement criticizing state officials' inaction in the face of the new "surging" delta variant of COVID-19. They note the nation's leading pediatricians are urging use of masks.
"We ask for your courageous leadership as we navigate this season of an evolving pandemic that continues to rage — globally and at our front door," their statement says before urging the GOP leaders "trust our expert recommendations as we strive to protect the health and well-being of the people of Tennessee."
In interviews on Wednesday, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nasvhille, accused Lee of playing politics on his response to the potentially deadly infection. Both attorneys warned Lee, Sexton and McNally that advocates for disabled and immunocompromised students could file suit if Lee's administration continues to press the executive order.
On Wednesday, the group Disability Rights Texas filed a federal lawsuit against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for his executive order prohibiting schools, cities and counties from mandating masks in schools.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.