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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Students use hand sanitizer in Melanie Raybon's Sixth Grade classroom. Orchard Knob Middle School started the 2021-2022 school year under a Hamilton County Schools system wide mask mandate on August 9, 2021, because of the surge in the Delta variant of the Coronavirus.

How, exactly, are mask mandates "overreach" or "government control," but mandating that there can't be mask mandates isn't overreach or government control?

It's a question made necessary by Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton's interest in joining the insanity that is running rampant in too many GOP circles these days. Sexton and his entire Republican Caucus on Wednesday asked Gov. Bill Lee in a letter to call a special COVID-19 session to block "overreach" requiring students or business patrons to wear masks as COVID-19 once again surges in red states that have resisted vaccines.

The entire super-majority Republican Tennessee General Assembly, indeed many Republican politicians across the nation — witness Rand Paul of Kentucky who rages against masks and vaccines, but didn't mind his wife investing in lots of COVID treatment stocks — should be ashamed over this sad folly. COVID-19 does not care what our political stripes are. It just wants its own control. It just wants to keep infecting and mutating into a constantly more dangerous killing machine.

But we can stop it — if we just will.

Sexton's letter is taking aim at the wrong enemy. Rather than focusing on the virus which already has claimed nearly 13,000 Tennesseans and sickened almost 1 million, the letter states that lawmakers should convene to "address misdirected and mandated response 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."

Good grief! Making Johnny wear a mask in school is not going to make him sick and maybe kill him. COVID-19 certainly can. This virus can also make Johnny a carrier of COVID's sickness to the scores of other children he plays with and the adults he loves.

Even normally reasonable Republicans apparently signed this letter seeking a special session, including some whom we'd think should know better — liked trained nurses Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge. Other signers include House Finance Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, Rep. Joan Carter, R-Ooltewah, and Rep. David Byrd, the Waynesboro Republican who experienced a near-death experience with COVID that ultimately resulted in him having to receive a liver transplant.

Sure, it's possible some of them might be signing on for a special session so they can vote against the "government control" of fighting government control, but realistically this is doubtful. In the political climate of today, does anyone really believe they will buck their GOP leaders like Sexton who earlier this week telegraphed his plan? Sexton repeatedly charged that school boards in Nashville and Memphis, and the Shelby County Health Department had "overstepped" their authority with mask mandates.

No, they, like Hamilton County Schools on Wednesday, did the very thing they are entrusted to do — they made decisions to protect our children and ourselves and our jobs by temporarily requiring masks on buses and in schools as the virus again surges.

Hamilton County school officials, are allowing parents to "opt out" their children. We're not sure how that's supposed to work, and we think it's a flawed plan. But it's better than no requirement at all.

We'd like again to quote Stacie Teague Smith, a parent of four children in our local schools, who recently told the Times Free Press she feared the spread of the delta variant and the lack of precautions (before the mask mandate was announced) in schools will hurt families.

"It feels inevitable that our family will face multiple quarantines," she said. "How are working parents supposed to manage? We can't rely on grandparents or others with such a dangerous virus, and how much time off will our employers allow? How do we cope with weeks of lost wages? How many 10-day quarantines until we lose our jobs?"

And, God forbid, how much time will it take before businesses and schools are forced to close again?

Already we're seeing on average 173 new cases a day per 100,000 people here in Hamilton County. That's back to the same levels we saw last November.

What more information do we need to know that the enemy isn't masks or vaccines or mandates?

The final decision now on that proposed special session falls to Gov. Lee, who so far has said local school boards can make those decisions, but "nothing's off the table," for a special session. 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."

To Sexton and others, we say again: The enemy is COVID-19. But it's also whatever ignorance our leaders can glom on to use the fear-mongering words of "government control" to fight reasonable precaution.

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