Things are about to heat up — even more — in Tennessee and other states where Republican governors and legislatures are standing in the way of local school and county officials who are making safety from COVID-19 harder and harder.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden made it clear he will take on red state governors like Tennessee's Bill "opt-out" Lee, Florida's Ron DeSantis and Texas' Greg Abbott who are standing in the way of local school districts and health departments and mayors who are issuing mask mandates and vaccine requirements.
On that same day, Biden's Education Secretary, Miguel A. Cardona, sent letters to eight states, including one addressed to Lee and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. The letter states Tennessee's actions to block school masking strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 "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."
It is Biden throwing down a gauntlet and threatening civil rights probes. And, no, we don't expect Tennessee Republicans like Lee to tuck tail and run.
Lee early this week flip-flopped on his previous statements that local school districts should decide the masking question. Instead, Lee drew his own bright red line, issuing Executive Order 84 requiring schools to allow mask "opt-outs" — a move that essentially negates mask requirements, and therefore any hint of COVID safety in our schools.
To be clear, Hamilton County Schools already were allowing parents to opt out their children from the county's mask requirement. Memphis and Nashville did not, and say they still won't.
Here in Hamilton County, we're already seeing how allowing an opt-out might as well be offering no mask protection at all — no matter that health experts say masking is one of the strongest tools to protect the spread of the delta variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone over the age of 2 — even those who are vaccinated — wear masks inside school buildings.
But at Sale Creek Middle/High School, 57% of students are opted out. At Signal Mountain Middle/High School, 31% are choosing to go maskless. At Brainerd High School, less than 1% opted out. Districtwide, the parents of 13.49% of students signed the opt-out papers.
Lest anyone think we don't have COVID in our schools, think again.
Hamilton County Schools COVID-19 reporting tool on the HCDE website on Thursday counted 57 active cases of COVID among school employees and 13 more awaiting test results. Still another 11 are listed as "active close contacts" — meaning they are in quarantine. Among students, 226 were listed with active cases and 1,585 were listed as "active close contacts."
On Wednesday, the day after Lee used emergency powers to weaken school mask mandates around the state, the Tennessean reported that "Tennessee crossed a new threshold: The coronavirus is now infecting more young kids, and hospitalizing more minors than ever."
The Tennessee Department of Health on Tuesday tallied an average of 549 new COVID-19 infections among children age 10 and younger each day — repeat, each day — over the past week. Additionally, at least 57 minors were hospitalized with the virus as of Tuesday, state data shows.
Both statistics are as high or higher than they ever have been at any point in the pandemic, The Tennessean reported, calling the rising number "a foreseeable result of the resurging pandemic becoming a crisis of the unvaccinated." Of course most children are too young to be eligible for vaccines and therefore "are made vulnerable to the virus by the choices of others."
It doesn't have to be this way. Masks are an easy tool. Vaccines are even easier — and free. Children 12 and older are eligible for the vaccines — despite the interference of Republican members of the General Assembly who raised a ruckus about health departments' outreach to publicize that fact. Our GOP lawmakers threatened to defund the department, and their ire ultimately resulted in the firing of the state's vaccine expert.
The Tennessee Legislature now is making even more onerous noises. All 73 GOP House members signed House Speaker Cameron Sexton's letter asking for a special session to de facto outlaw school mask mandates, to limit the authority of health departments and to halt "ongoing discrimination" by private businesses that choose to require vaccinations.
Thus on Thursday, the president took out his own pen and signed a presidential memorandum.
"I direct the Secretary of Education to assess all available tools in taking action, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, to ensure that:
"(i) Governors and other officials are taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a safe return to school for our Nation's children, including not standing in the way of local leaders making such preparations; and
"(ii) Governors and other officials are giving students the opportunity to participate and remain in safe full-time, in-person learning without compromising their health or the health of their families or communities."
Folks, it's really hard to argue with that.