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Tennessee students can opt out of wearing masks at school, governor says. The Shelby County superintendent disagrees.

Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order Monday allowing parents of schoolchildren to opt out of school mask mandates.

Lee said he will not call for a special legislative session, which General Assembly leaders had called for in an effort to prevent mask mandates and other safety measures in schools.

“Local decision-making is very important,” Lee said at a news conference in Nashville. But parents’ ability to make decisions for their kids “is the most important. No one cares more about the health and well-being of a child than that child’s parent.”

The state’s largest school district, Shelby County Schools in Memphis, will for now continue to require masks for all school employees, students, and visitors, Superintendent Joris Ray tweeted Monday evening. Ray said he and board members are consulting with the district’s general counsel to review Lee’s order.

Lee’s move comes as the delta variant drives a resurgence of COVID cases and political fights are raging nationwide over what schools should do to keep safe as they try to find their footing after a year and a half of pandemic disruptions.

Shelby County Schools, which resumed classes last week, announced in early August it would require masks in schools, and at least 13 other school districts followed suit.

Six small school systems in the Memphis suburbs also issued mandates in compliance with an order from Shelby County health officials to require face coverings inside of all school buildings.

Lee’s executive order covers both school districts and local health agencies.

In a statement Monday, the Shelby County Health Department said it would comply with Lee’s order and “make adjustments as necessary.” The department said it continues to support recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics that children age 2 and older, teachers, and staff members at schools, preschools and day cares wear masks in indoor settings, particularly in regions with high transmission of the virus like Tennessee.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the county shifting its stance will mean for Shelby County Schools. Ray referred to the county health order in saying the district’s mask mandate would continue.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat, said going maskless to a school where COVID-19 is spreading freely “is like going into a lion’s den with no armor.”

“The governor gave no solutions on how to protect our kids,” Dixie said, noting kids under 12 are ineligible for any of the vaccines. “You can’t just say what you don’t want and don’t give some sort of solution.”

Lee’s order is similar to one signed last week by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Lee’s order doesn’t go as far as DeSantis’s, which threatens to defund administrators’ and school board members’ salaries if they require masks.

In a statement, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, said the order was “irresponsible” and won’t help to curb the spread of the virus.

“How do you say decisions on community health should be made locally, and in the very same breath and sentence remove local control in regards to children wearing masks at school?” Parkinson said.

Amanda Bragida, a parent of elementary school students in Shelby County Schools and a school nurse, said she cried when she heard about Lee’s order. Her daughter, who as a kindergartener is too young to be vaccinated, has asthma. Bragida said she and her husband discussed whether she should quit her job to homeschool, but they can’t afford it.

As a school nurse, Bragida said, she has watched masks, social distancing, and other safety measures work wonderfully in schools.

“I tell my children that this is a way we can try to help ourselves and help others, and they understand that,” she said. “I’m trying to educate our students that these tools are effective and it doesn’t go against our freedom. We have to care about others.”

Even with a mask order, Bragida said, she has spent much of the young school year contact-tracing and fielding calls from parents with children who were exposed or tested positive, in large part because community transmission remains high.

“I don’t get a lunch break. I’m like a floor nurse,” she said. “We’re so swamped already, and less masking isn’t going to make this year go better for us or for students.”

Lee’s order comes as the virus is spreading through Tennessee faster than at any time during the pandemic, except for this winter’s surge, while a staffing shortage makes it harder for hospitals to provide care.

The Tennessee Department of Health reported a seven-day rolling average of 3,913 daily cases on Aug. 12, and deaths are at roughly 20 per day. On Monday, according to the health department, the test positivity rate was 17.5%; the World Health Organization recommends restrictions to slow the spread of the virus when the positivity rate is above 5%.

Earlier in the day, Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the Tennessee National Guard was being deployed to understaffed hospitals. She said more people were hospitalized in the first 15 days of August than there were during any full month of the pandemic.

Many hospitals are full, but not entirely because of COVID. Piercey said they were closer to capacity than usual before this summer’s delta variant spike. Two out of five ICU patients have COVID, Piercey said.

Both Lee and Piercey promoted the use of monoclonal antibodies for people to improve their immune response.

But in addition to the increased number of cases and hospitalizations, more Tennesseans are getting vaccinated. About 41% of Tennesseans are vaccinated, but more people have been getting the shots each week for more than a month.

Nearly all COVID deaths in the past few months — 94% — were among unvaccinated people, Piercey said. Most of the vaccinated people who died were immunocompromised.

Ian Round reported from Nashville and Caroline Bauman reported from Memphis.

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