Tennessee House GOP urges session to curb local COVID powers

August 11, 2021 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — All 73 Tennessee House Republicans signaled their support on Wednesday for a special session to limit the authority of local officials to make rules aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, as lawmakers fumed over mask requirements in a handful of school districts.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton sent the letter signed by his whole caucus to Republican Gov. Bill Lee. The governor’s spokesperson, Casey Black, said his team is reviewing it. Lee was noncommittal when asked by a reporter about a possible special session earlier in the day, saying broadly that parents know best what their children need.

The request came the day after a nearly four-hour acrimonious school board meeting in affluent Williamson County, south of Nashville, over mask mandates. Many attendees opposed to mandates frequently disrupted the proceedings before officials voted to implement a temporary mask mandate for elementary school students, staff and visitors. One person was escorted out by deputies, and dozens of other parents walked out in support.

Sexton’s letter described in vague terms what could be on the table for a special session, which still is not certain to happen.


“We believe there is a need to curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials, confirm a parent’s right to make decisions that impact the mental and physical health of their children, provide support and direction to schools to ensure educators are properly compensated for COVID-19 leave, and protect all Tennesseans from misdirected mandated designed to limit their ability to make their own decisions,” Sexton wrote.

He wrote that lawmakers also need to evaluate the practice of some businesses requiring proof of vaccination to enter their buildings, and “other issues related to COVID-19.”

There are two ways a special session could come about: The governor could call it himself, or two-thirds of both the House and Senate could make it happen on their own.

After Sexton threatened last week to request the special session if districts required masks, the Senate’s leader, Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, said he trusts locally elected school boards to decide on COVID-19 health rules for schools. It’s unclear how many in the Senate GOP disagree and want the special session.

Sexton’s push against school mask requirements has drawn criticisms from advocates who say he’s putting children at risk of getting sick and spreading the virus. Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons tweeted Wednesday that he applauds the counties that “acted on recommendations of medical experts rather than the threats of politicians.”

Tennessee students are retuning to school amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, particularly among the unvaccinated. Currently, children under the age of 12 do not qualify for the vaccine.

Masks are a key coronavirus-prevention tool that doesn’t pose health risks for children older than toddler age and are most effective when worn by a larger number of people, public health experts say. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has again recommended them for schools.

Only a small handful of schools have elected to adopt a mask mandate as Tennessee’s vaccination rates remain among the lowest in the country. Those district include Shelby County, which encompasses Memphis, and Nashville. Some smaller school districts are also on the list, including Hancock and Henry counties.

Williamson County’s school mask mandate expires Sept. 21. At that time, board members will reassess and decide whether or not to extend the requirement.

WTVF-TV reported that 30 people were allowed to testify before the Williamson County school board cast their votes Tuesday evening. They ranged from medical experts who pleaded that a mask mandate would help protect children while others threatened that the board’s decision would have consequences.

“If you own a business, we will boycott your business ... in the past, you dealt with sheep now prepare yourself to deal with lions,” said one person, Daniel Jordan.

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who is from Williamson County, tweeted support for the mask opponents at the meeting, thanking conservative personality Clay Travis and “the dozens of Tennessee parents for standing up for common sense.”

“No masks for kids!” Blackburn tweeted.

The governor has resisted implementing a statewide mask mandate for schools, instead choosing to leave the decision to local officials.