Teachers unions join pushback against Lee’s opt-out order for masks in schools

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FILE: Students wear facemasks and stand in a social distance on their first day of school after summer vacation at the St. Lawrence Catholic School in north of Miami, on August 18, 2021. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Teacher unions across the state have called on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to rescind his executive order preventing school districts that also allows parents the ability to opt-out of mask mandates

The president of the United Education Association of Shelby County and several other organizations, including the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, are demanding Lee to allow local school districts the freedom and autonomy to do what they consider best. schools when it comes to COVID-19.

“Our local health department has led the way on this very critical mitigation strategy. The state always seems to be several steps behind,” said Danette Stokes, United Education Association president.

Under the current order, parents are allowed to opt-out of mask mandates, and certain rules have also been put in place to prevent districts from going virtual unless granted permission from the governor.

In a letter penned to school districts, Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn said she would consider waivers that would allow individual schools and classrooms to temporarily switch to remote learning versus the entire district if necessary.

“There needs to be some level of common sense and flexibility for those who need to extend some of those school or classroom closures and move to remote learning,” Schwinn said.

However, Stokes says that isn’t enough.

“We see the data. This COVID surge is horrible in Tennessee,” she said. “The state must recognize school systems will have to close due to the Delta Variant, not just individual schools.”

Schwinn says districts still have the ability to provide student-level quarantines, but Stokes says the school district should be able to freely make the next decision without retribution.

“Students will, and many already have, tested positive for COVID-19 and are required to quarantine. So, my question to the Governor and the Education Commissioner is do you want students at home learning or playing video games?” Stokes said.

As of last week, the Shelby County School district says there were 470 news cases reported among students and 36 new cases among staff.

This brings the school district to 857 total COVID cases among students and 123 cases among staff since the start of the school year. 

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