NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton threatened that he would ask Gov. Bill Lee to call a special session if school districts opt to require masks or close amid the spread of the Delta variant.
Sexton’s statements came Monday during a news conference about test scores with Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. His remarks came shortly after Metro Nashville Board of Education announced it would hold a special meeting this week to discuss its COVID protocols, including face masks.
“Students need and must be in in-person learning in the classrooms," Sexton, R-Crossville, told reporters.
"And I sure hope that a school system in this state, after this data is released, does not shut their schools. 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, “I sure hope that school systems do not require a mask mandate for those students. And if they do, I’m going to ask the Governor for a special session."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Sexton if school systems should be punished if they want to protect children from the risk of COVID.
"By telling them they can’t mandate a mask? If that’s the punishment, then sure,” Sexton responded.
"If we need to come into a special session and say school systems can’t mandate masks on kids, I’m happy to do that. I’m sure our members are happy to do that.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics says face masks are the best hope for keeping kids in the classroom during the coming year, especially with the more infectious delta variant now sweeping the country.
In addition, the CDC has endorsed the continued use of face masks in areas like Tennessee with high rates of spread.
Sexton insisted politicians are in a better position to make those kinds of decisions.
"We listen to healthcare people," he continued. "You can listen to the economists. But, at the end of the day, we're elected and we make the decision that we feel are best based on the information we have."
Until and unless children are vaccinated against COVID-19, they need to be protected. Masks are necessary again given a variant that is infecting young adults & children at levels not seen with previous SARS-CoV2 strains. Our leaders may nor mandate masks but Delta does. https://t.co/PuujD3MISp— James E.K. Hildreth (@JamesEKHildreth) August 3, 2021
Lee agreed with Sexton's opposition to face masks in schools.
"We have a solution for COVID-19, and it's a vaccine," the governor told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
In fact, facing a backlash from conservative Republicans, Lee's administration has pulled back from its vaccine outreach to teens.
And kids under age 12 are not even approved for the shot.
Still, Lee said, he isn't persuaded by what the nation's pediatricians say.
NewsChannel 5 asked, "If you're not listening to the American Academy of Pediatrics, who are you listening to?"
"I'm listening to parents," Lee answered, "because parents have the best decision making process for their children of anyone."
But what about the medical professionals?
Lee responded, "The parents should consult with their medical professionals to make those decisions."
Former state Health Department insider, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a trained pediatrician, recently told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that she tried - and failed - to get Lee's attention on the risk to children.
"I think we will see more children die because they are not protected with vaccines. We have a more virulent strain coming through," Fiscus added.
Fiscus worries that parents who don't understand the science will put other children at risk.
@CSexton25 is not only advising against @AmerAcadPeds and @CDCgov recommendations but wants to impose his will upon schools that want to do the right thing. Politics interfering w #publichealth is unacceptable. Every death is preventable. Get out of the way. #PeopleOverPolitics— Michelle Fiscus MD,FAAP (@drfixus) August 3, 2021
The governor, however, said he isn't concerned.
"I think parents have to make decisions about risk of their own children, where they go to school, whether they wear a mask, what decisions are made," Lee said.
We asked, "What about risking other children?"
"I think those parents have to make decisions about their own children, all children," he responded.
Just across the state line in Georgia, a 5-year-old boy recently died from COVID.
After the news conference, NewsChannel 5 asked the House speaker if he was willing to accept hearing more stories like that.
His answer: life is full of risks. We don't try to eliminate all risk to children -- and he doesn't see COVID as being any different.
Metro Schools released the following statement in response to Speaker Sexton's comments:
"The MNPS protocols are currently that masks are highly encouraged, but optional. The school board will meet on Thursday to discuss further. The guidance from the Tennessee Department of Health to superintendents last week was that this was a local decision and encouraged them to refer to the guidelines from the CDC. It would be helpful for districts to know if that guidance has changed."