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House Speaker still wants special session, thinks school masking should be parents' choice

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Posted at 12:28 PM, Aug 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-13 19:30:50-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF)  — House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R – Crossville) says he still wants Gov. Bill Lee to call a special session, adding that he believes the decision to wear masks at school should be left up to parents, not the districts.

Sexton made the comments during an appearance on “Inside Politics,” in which he was asked about the special session and mask mandates in schools.

You can see Sexton's full interview with Pat Nolan on Inside Politics Friday night at 7:00 on NewsChannel 5+

“I personally don’t think [school districts] should mandate masks but what I do believe is the parental choice. The parents should have the choice to decide what’s best for the health of their child. The school boards do have the authority in state law, the AG has opined that to us and also legal department,” Sexton told NewsChannel 5 political analyst Pat Nolan. "If the schools want to mandate masks, OK, then parents should have an option to opt out or have other choices at their disposal if they disagree with that decision. It’s ultimately in my mind a parental decision."

Earlier this week, Sexton sent a letter to Gov. Lee asking him to call the session to "address misdirected and mandated responses to COVID-19 by local entities and officials" -- even though guidance from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all students, teachers, and staff wear a mask, regardless of their vaccination status.

The governor's office said on Wednesday the request is under review.

When asked what "options" the legislature should provide for parents, Sexton said, “We’ll see. That’s the thing, if you get in a special session, you start getting together and start working out some legislation. The letter simply outlined the things we want to discuss, it didn’t say that’s what the call will be, it’s just things we’re hearing from the public we’d like to address.”

One topic not included in Sexton’s letter to the governor is Tennessee’s low vaccination rate. Nolan asked Sexton why getting shots into arms isn’t one of the more pressing issues if a special session if called.

“I think people need to make that decision for themselves. I’m not for government telling people what they need, don’t need to do, whether or not to get a vaccination,” Sexton said. He added that Tennesseans need to have that conversation with their own health care providers.

When asked if he himself is vaccinated, Sexton said he is, but said he made that decision after consulting with his doctor.

When it comes to a special session, there are two paths: The governor can call one, or the legislature can call it if they have a 2/3 majority in the House and Senate. However, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has said multiple times that he feels that decision is best left up to school boards.

“I’m not trying to convince the Lt. governor,” Sexton said. “He has his opinion and I respect his opinion. He’s a great individual, but I also think if school board impose a mask mandate on parents, parents at least need to have the minimal option of opting out.”

HOW MUCH WOULD A SPECIAL SESSION COST?

A special session costs $30,750 each day. Each round trip for all lawmakers costs $15,474 in mileage.

“Whatever happens, if they pass this bill, and you give those kinds of choices and students die because they’re exposed to this virus in schools, will you be able to live with those consequences,” Nolan asked.

"Well I think what we do know is 99.996% of the kids younger than 20 that's their survival rate. We do know that the leading causes of death for respiratory issues is number 9. Suicide is number 5,” Sexton responded.

"I do not think that this is the only year that the masks are going to try to be mandated. Because this virus is not going away, it's not going to have enough people vaccinated. Especially, children. And so, this may be happening for the next five to 10 years. So, the question needs to be about is this what we want to do, have our kids where masks. And if we do, what's the long term consequences of that," Sexton added.

Last week, Sexton threatened that he would ask the governor to call a special session if school districts opt to require masks or close amid the spread of the delta variant. So far, school districts in six counties have announced plans to implement masks: Davidson, Williamson, Shelby, Hamilton, Knox and Henry counties.

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COVID IN TENNESSEE

In recent weeks, Tennessee has seen a sharp uptick of new COVID-19 cases — the vast majority of which are among the unvaccinated.

More than 5,500 Tennesseans have tested positive for the virus since Wednesday. The last time we saw a new case count higher than that was on January 16. More than 6,900 people tested positive that day.

More than 2,000 people are battling the virus right now in hospitals across the state, which is causing hospitals to run out of available beds.

Currently, 7% of ICU beds and 10% of floor beds are available in Tennessee.

Inside Politics airs Friday at 7 p.m. on NewsChannel 5 Plus. You can also watch it live here.