NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — An order by the Tennessee governor letting parents opt their children out of following mask rules at school has drawn defiance from officials in Memphis and Nashville, including a pledge Tuesday from Nashville's district attorney not to prosecute teachers and school officials for flouting the carveout during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not long after Republican Gov. Bill Lee's directive came down Monday, officials with Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools in the Memphis area pledged to keep enforcing their school mask requirements for students and others just as they have been. The resistance in the face of rising COVID-19 cases coincides with fights in states like Florida, where some districts are requiring masks despite a ban by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk offered his assurance to a school board member who noted that Tennessee law includes a Class A misdemeanor — punishable by up to a year in jail — for “any person or representative thereof violating any order, rule or regulation” under an emergency declaration, like the one in place for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The question is whether you, as the District Attorney for the 20th judicial district of the state of Tennessee, will be initiating any criminal or other proceedings against teachers, staff, or board members for continuing to require masks or facial coverings in school buildings during the school day, on a school bus, or at school functions?” school board member Emily Masters wrote Tuesday.
“I will not prosecute school officials or teachers for keeping children safe,” Funk responded.
The governor had been facing a push by House Republican lawmakers for a special lawmaking session that sought broader consideration of how to limit local authority over COVID-19 health regulations. A letter from House Speaker Cameron Sexton signed by all 73 House Republicans also mentioned looking into how some businesses limit access to buildings based on someone’s vaccination status.
Lee said “parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being" under his order, as he also declined to call lawmakers into session for now.
On Tuesday, the governor’s spokesperson, Casey Black, said: “We expect counties and districts to follow the law.” Republican Senate leader Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said if Shelby and Nashville schools keep resisting, "we will have no choice but to exercise other remedial options.”
The director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, Adrienne Battle, on Monday said the district’s masking policies also would continue while the governor’s order is reviewed. She said school districts were not given prior notice and no chance to review or comment on it.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper said the executive order “undermines a long-held trust that local governments know what’s best for their communities.” Lee had left school mask mandate decisions up to the locals.
Meanwhile, the Nashville school district is faced with 980 students and 95 staff members currently quarantined or isolated, and 207 students and 52 staff that were confirmed positive for COVID-19 within the last week, according to district data.
"We made a critical return to in-person learning, only to lose our best tool for keeping schools open and keeping children safe," the mayor said in a statement. "With our hospitals already under tremendous stress, we are now on a path to more outbreaks, more quarantines, and greater learning loss.”
Only a handful of school districts have adopted a mask mandate as Tennessee’s vaccination rates remain among the lowest nationally and cases have seen a resurgence through the delta variant, stretching hospitals and their workers thin. Some small counties, including Henry and Hancock, have instituted mask mandates as well.
Henry, like several others, already offered religious and medical mask exemptions, and the parental opt-out will be honored as well, said Leah Watkins, Henry County Schools director.
Williamson County, Nashville's neighbor to the south, saw a raucous crowd of opponents as they voted last week to implement a temporary mask mandate with medical and religious exemptions for elementary school students, staff and visitors. Video showed some chanting “No more masks” and following mask supporters to the parking lot to shout obscenities.
In Shelby County, the seven-member Black Caucus of the county commission expressed support Tuesday for the decision by Shelby County Schools to keep in place its mask mandate, which also extends to private schools and has a medical exemption. The county has seen 1,746 cases in the past 14 days among people 5 to 18 years old, the Tennessee Department of Health reported.
Commissioner Van Turner said he has three school-age children and two are vaccinated. The third child has an autoimmune disorder and she is not vaccinated, so Lee’s order concerns him as a parent, Turner said.
He compared Lee’s order to allowing students to opt out of rules barring smoking at school or requiring school uniforms.
He said parents "have rights, but they don’t have rights to endanger the lives of other children and other households.”
Meanwhile, school districts in the Memphis suburbs of Bartlett, Collierville and Germantown said parents must inform their teachers or schools in writing if they intend to opt out of mask requirements.
Sainz reported from Memphis, Tennessee.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.
Jonathan Mattise And Adrian Sainz, The Associated Press