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Tennessee House speaker threatens districts that close school buildings or require masks with vouchers

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton speaks about state test scores and remote learning during a news conference at the State Capitol on Aug. 2, 2021.
Courtesy of State of Tennessee

A top Tennessee legislative leader warned local school officials Monday not to issue mask mandates, shutter school buildings in favor of remote learning, or segregate classrooms based on who has and hasn’t been vaccinated.

Any such action for the 2021-22 school year may result, he said, in a special legislative session where lawmakers could vote to let parents move taxpayer money from public to private schools.

The stern warnings from House Speaker Cameron Sexton came as Tennessee released disappointing but expected state-level results of the first pandemic test scores from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Testing Program, or TCAP.

The data showed a 5% decline in proficiency since 2019, the last time students took the standardized tests. A related presentation by the state education department said students who learned in person were more likely to score as proficient than those learning remotely.

“I sure hope that a school system in this state, after this data is released, does not shut their schools,” said Sexton, a Republican from Crossville.

“If they do, I’m going to ask the governor for legislation to allow those parents in those school districts to take their money through school choice and to go wherever they deem they need to go,” he continued. “There needs to be a message to these school systems that it’s unacceptable to close schools or systems in our state any more.”

State education leaders had promised to release TCAP data with “forward-looking” strategies for catching students up. But a news conference at the state Capitol instead turned into a GOP critique of school districts in Memphis and Nashville that spent most of last school year teaching their students remotely, with Sexton and Gov. Bill Lee delivering frequent jabs. They also criticized COVID mitigation strategies that don’t have anything to do with test scores.

“Student achievement gaps have always existed, but the lack of in-person learning this year has exasperated (cq) an already bad situation,” Lee said, noting that the gap in test scores between white students and students of color has widened. “It’s clear that minority students have been negatively impacted disproportionately.”

Last year, in the pitched debate over school reopening, the governor and GOP legislative leaders repeatedly chided leaders of the state’s two largest school districts for sticking with remote learning, even as rates of COVID infection were higher in those communities. At one point, lawmakers threatened to strip funding from their students if the districts didn’t reopen their classrooms, which they did by March.

The governor and Sexton also used the news conference to deliver pointed messages about mask mandates to Shelby County Schools, the only Tennessee district requiring face coverings for the upcoming school year, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, whose board is scheduled to convene Thursday to review its earlier decision to make masks optional.

Lee said “personal decisions like masks” should be left up to parents, a departure from his statement last month that mask mandates in schools were local district decisions. State leaders in the departments of health and education also have told district leaders to make their own masking decisions based on federal guidance and discussions with local health officials.

“It would be helpful for districts to know if that guidance has changed,” said Sean Braisted, a spokesman for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, on Monday.

Now, as COVID’s fast-spreading delta variant is causing cases to surge again, some school systems elsewhere in the nation have reinstated mask mandates based on recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Both organizations say all students and school staff should wear masks, regardless of whether they are vaccinated.

But Lee said Monday that parents know best whether to send their students to school with face coverings.

“I’m listening to parents because parents have the best decision-making process for their children of anyone. The parents should consult with their medical professionals to make those decisions,” he said.

Sexton was even more passionate about keeping masks optional. For districts that issue mandates, he threatened to pursue a school voucher law to let parents pull their kids and funding out of public schools. Sexton previously has voted against all voucher proposals.

“We can listen to health care people … but at the end of the day, we’re elected and we make the decisions that we feel is best based on the information we have,” Sexton said.

He said the mortality rate for unvaccinated children under 11 is low, even as hospitals in the South are reporting admitting record numbers of children with the delta strain.

The speaker also warned that districts should not consider segregating students and staff based on whether they’ve been vaccinated, although Chalkbeat has found no reports that idea is under discussion in Tennessee.

Districts plan to use numerous mitigation strategies to prioritize student safety as the pandemic grinds on. In addition to its masking order, Shelby County Schools will provide voluntary nasal swab testing for COVID to all students and staff when the new school year begins next week.

John Barker, deputy superintendent for strategic operations and finance, called nasal swabs the “gold standard for testing” and said testing will be done at schools through a partnership with Poplar Healthcare. Any testing of minors will require parental consent.

The Memphis district also is using federal funding and grants to staff schools with healthcare workers in hopes of having a nurse in every school.

“We’re looking to employ healthcare professionals — nurses, LPNs, RNs — to be in schools to not only help facilitate with this effort but also to help with the social-emotional needs of students as they return,” Barker said.

Cathryn Stout contributed to this report.

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