U.S. education secretary sends letter critical of Gov. Lee executive order on school mask mandates

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FILE – In this July 1, 2020, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee removes his mask as he begins a news conference in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee was one of the first states to begin reopening in late April after Lee reluctantly issued a safer-at-home order that forced businesses to close. Since then, case numbers have continued to rise in part due to more testing, but also because of an increase in community spread of the disease. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

TENNESSEE (WATE) — The United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sent a letter to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn regarding Lee’s Executive Order that gives parents the ability to opt their child out of school mask mandates.

In part, Miguel Cardona wrote, “Tennessee’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law.”

Cardona writes that this Executive Order goes against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19, along with hindering schools from adopting requirements for masks.

He also expresses his department’s concern that this action could limit schools’ ability to adopt a plan for the safe return of in-person instruction that coincides with CDC guidelines to protect students and educators.

Tennessee doctors shared their opposition to the order, and thousands have signed on to an open letter to Gov. Bill Lee posted online Tuesday. That letter says the opt-out provision threatens the public and asks the governor to follow the science on masks.

“As trained healthcare providers, we strongly oppose Governor Lee’s Executive Order,” part of the letter stated. “Scientific evidence demonstrates that masks can decrease the spread of COVID-19. Scientific evidence demonstrates that children can be infected with COVID-19 and that children can spread the infection to adults. When community members – both adults and children – wear masks in the context of group settings, this action has the potential to decrease community spread of COVID-19.”

As of Tuesday evening, 2,690 people had signed the letter, with signatures that included nurses, doctors, pharmacists, and specialists from Memphis to Johnson City.

White House addresses how ‘some State governments’ policies/laws interfere with keeping children safe in schools

In a memorandum from President Joe Biden on ensuring a safe return to schools, Biden applauded some governors and state/local officials on their policies to, “…maximize the health and safety of students, educators, and staff.”

He also directs the Secretary of Education to assess all available tools in taking action as appropriate and consistent with applicable law to ensure (among other directives in the memorandum) that:

  • Governors and other officials are taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a safe return to school for our Nation’s children, including not standing in the way of local leaders making such preparations; and
  • Governors and other officials are giving students the opportunity to participate and remain in safe full-time, in-person learning without compromising their health or the health of their families or communities. 

In response to Biden’s memorandum, Cardona released a blog regarding his plan of action to stand up for student’s rights and supporting school districts in protecting students and educators.

In part, he wrote, “I am also deeply troubled when I see the opposite: officials that are putting politics ahead of students and blocking their school districts from adopting science-based strategies designed to protect students, aligned with CDC guidance. These states are needlessly placing students, families, and educators at risk. Yet in each of these states, there are also educators and others who are taking steps to protect the health and safety of their school communities. On behalf of the U.S. Department of Education, we stand with our educators and leaders who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction. 

“I want to emphasize this Department’s commitment to protecting the rights of every student in the nation. The Department has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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