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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Gov. Bill Lee is greeted by Tennessee Sen. Bo Watson after arriving at McConnell Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Hixson, Tenn to present the school with the Governor's Civic Seal award.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee doctors, nurses and other medical professionals presented Gov. Bill Lee's administration a 5,400-signature petition Friday urging the governor to drop his executive order that lets parents and guardians of K-12 students opt their children out of local school mask requirements.

The doctors cited an alarming rise in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations among teens and younger children.

During a Zoom news conference, a number of medical professionals took turns reading from the letter calling on Lee to reverse course from Executive Order 84, which he signed earlier in the week.

"We urge Gov. Lee and our elected leaders to listen to the health care professionals of Tennessee," said Dr. Erica Kaye, a Memphis physician who penned the open letter that was widely supported in the medical community. "An executive order that allows parents to opt out of masks threatens the public health of entire communities and our state at large."

Although some Chattanooga-area medical professionals' signatures were listed on the petition, none asked to speak at the videoconference.

Several Tennessee school districts have imposed mask mandates as the delta variant of the virus has caused case numbers not seen since the winter peak of the pandemic. Those districts did not have an option to opt out.

Last week, Hamilton County Schools imposed a mask requirement on students, including a provision allowing students' parents or guardians to opt the children out. Several critics said a mask "mandate" with an opt-out is not a mandate at all, and that the seriousness of the health crisis requires an actual mandate.

This week, Lee expanded that idea across the state. He issued an order overriding local mask mandates, saying parents know best what rules to apply to their children. Local officials in Memphis and Nashville are not complying with his order, setting the stage for a legal showdown.

Among those who spoke at Friday's news conference was physician Sara Cross, another Memphian whom Lee last year appointed to his COVID-19 task force. Cross said the group met in conference calls some five times and never reconvened so far as she knows after the summer of 2020.

"Usually a task force is formed of people from different backgrounds to come together and come up with ideas and solve problems, but that's not what this task force was," said Cross, who noted she's not sure if the task force still exists or if she's even still on it. "We never were asked for our advice or expertise, and we never gave any type of recommendations to the governor, or to our leaders, about this pandemic."

Neither Lee's communications chief, Laine Arnold, nor Press Secretary Casey Black responded to a Times Free Press request for comment on criticisms aimed at the governor. Among the questions posed were what actions or recommendations were made by Lee's task force and adopted.

The petition comes to Lee two days after President Joe Biden directed U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to weigh legal action against six Republican governors, including 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.

"We're not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children," the president said during a White House news conference.

Lee's social media account later posted a response on social media, saying, "Regarding the Biden Administration letter: Parents know better than the government what's best for their children."

That's been Lee's argument. The issue boiled over earlier this month among GOP-majority House members with House Speaker Cameron Sexton saying there should be a special legislative session to overrule local mask requirements for students and teachers.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, was cooler to the idea, which seemed to go on the back burner after Lee's executive order.

Proponents of student mask requirements note Tennessee ranks among states where residents are most at risk for severe infection and spread of the virus. Most major metropolitan hospitals are near or over capacity, distressing physicians, nurses and medical workers.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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