NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee doctors have tried holding news conferences, signing petitions, even producing personal video pleas -- to get the governor's attention on the issue of kids and COVID.
Thursday, frustrated that they have not been heard, a group of area physicians decided to confront Gov. Bill Lee directly as he left his own news conference.
"Governor Lee, we want to get a meeting with you," one called out as Lee continued walking through the halls of the state Capitol.
She continued, "We want to know, as a Christian man, how you feel about children getting sick and dying from COVID when this could be prevented with universal masking."
The doctors also presented the governor's office with a petition signed by physicians at St. Jude Children's Hospital, along with 6,300 of their colleagues around the state, that calls for universal masking and other measures to better protect children.
Among them was pediatrician Dr. Mary Kline Barnes.
"I can't tell you how many of my own friends' kids have COVID right now and how many families I have spoken with in the last two weeks where the kids got COVID at school," she told reporters outside the governor's office.
Inside the news conference, Lee claimed in one breath that "districts do have the ability to impose a mask requirement in any school district across the state."
Then, he defended his own order that lets parents ignore those requirements if they don't like them.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Lee, "Why should Tennesseans not view that as political doublespeak where you're trying to have it both ways?"
"Yeah, I think what we're trying to do is to provide for as much protection as possible and provide for the rights of parents to have the last say in their children's health," he responded.
As for the advice he's getting from Tennessee's doctors, the governor said he's "listening."
"I value their input. We use it in our decision making, and we'll go forward," Lee said.
NewsChannel 5 noted, "But you're not following their advice on universal masking."
Lee's answer: "We agree that we don't agree on every issue."
The governor's education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, sparked a backlash this week with an upbeat social-media video that invited parents to share their back-to-school stories.
"Is this some sort of sick joke?" asked one person, noting the video was "out of touch with the reality of what is going on in our schools."
Another noted, "Two families I absolutely adore have been devastated by COVID - in both cases, their children brought it home from school." She added, "Your reckless disregard for human life is despicable."
Another suggested, "You need to hire a quarantined 15 year old to manage your social media. You know, to not sound so tone deaf."
During Lee's news conference, Schwinn defended the video.
"We have got to find a way to balance and say it's OK to hold both the joy of a new school year for the one million kids who are going to school every day and hold with us the challenges of a pandemic," the commissioner told reporters.
But the doctors say the first step is protecting those children.
"This is just reckless," Dr. Barnes added.
"It's reckless endangerment, it's unethical and it's preventable. It shouldn't be happening."