schools

Differing court rulings affect mask mandates in East and West Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference in Nashville on Jan. 23, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A federal judge in Memphis late last week granted a temporary restraining order against the state enforcing Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allow parents to opt their children out of mask requirements in school.

But the Knoxville Compass reports another federal judge in East Tennessee declined to take the same step in a case filed by parents there. U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer found the families of three students with disabilities hadn’t presented sufficient evidence of “immediate or irreparable injury or loss” by Knox County School’s refusal to enact a mask mandate.

In the Memphis case, mothers of two children with serious illnesses persuaded U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman to issue a restraining order against the opt-out provision after the Shelby County Health Department issued a universal mask requirement.

28,000 school-age children test positive for COVID-19 in two weeks

More than 28,000 school-age children in Tennessee have tested positive for COVID-19 over the last two weeks, the Commercial Appeal reports.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education plans to relaunch its pandemic dashboard after Labor Day.

Chalkbeat has reported the data included in the dashboard was incomplete because of limited reporting by school districts and privacy concerns. Here’s what the publication said about the portal in November:

A Chalkbeat analysis of COVID-19 data in the state’s schools dashboard shows between 880 and 3,540 student coronavirus cases weren’t included in the district level totals from Oct. 19 to Nov. 15. Similarly, at least 685 and as many as 2,740 teacher cases also were excluded on the district level.

The wide range in the number of excluded cases in districts is caused because of how Tennessee shares data when there are fewer than five cases in a school. In Chalkbeat’s analysis, the lowest case estimates (listed above) presume there is one case in a school while the highest calculations presume there are four cases in the school.

The state “suppresses,” or excludes, data when there are fewer than five cases at a school. Data is shielded in small data counts because releasing that information could inadvertently lead to students or teachers being identified.

So if a school reports two COVID cases, for example, the state’s dashboard displays it simply as less than five cases for that school, but those same cases are excluded from the district totals in the dashboard. That means your school might report fewer than five cases, but the district level numbers would show zero.

McNally to holdout school districts: So you *want* a special session?

Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton await Gov. Bill Lee arrival for his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Nashville) was one of the leading opponents of House Republican calls to hold a special session to ban schools from imposing mask mandates. Under a compromise, Gov. Bill Lee on Monday issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of mask requirements. But Shelby County and Nashville school districts have slow-walked the order so far, saying they want to look into the legal specifics. Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk also announced he wouldn’t bring charges against teachers or district officials who violate the order.

McNally doesn’t appear pleased that the order isn’t being immediately complied with. Here’s his statement released on Tuesday afternoon:

“I am extremely appalled and alarmed at the response to Governor Lee’s executive order from Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools. This order was a compromise that still allows school boards to ensure the health and safety of their students while recognizing the rights of parents to decide what is best for their children. The Governor and the General Assembly cannot and will not allow lawful orders to be defied. If these systems persist in resisting the order, we will have no choice but to exercise other remedial options.”

In other words, if the opt-out provision isn’t implemented, McNally likely won’t stand in the way of renewed calls for a special session in which all bets could be off.

Lee declines to call special session, issues order for parents to opt kids out of mask mandates

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has declined House GOP calls for a special session to block mask mandates and debate the “discrimination” against customers of private businesses who can’t prove they have been inoculated or tested for COVID-19.

Lee instead issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of mask mandates for children attending K-12 schools.

Here are the governor’s remarks as prepared for delivery on Monday.

Thanks for joining today. Before we cover an important COVID-19 announcement, I want to express a heavy heart regarding the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan. Over the years, many Tennesseans were deployed and some lost their lives to fight the War on Terror and create stability in the region. 

The sacrifices of American troops are not in vain. My hope is that wisdom will prevail in the United States’ response. I hope you will join me in praying for the people of Afghanistan. 

Let me start off this portion of the briefing by saying that we’re facing a significant challenge in our hospitals as a result of the increase in COVID cases. 

The most important tool we have to fight the pandemic is a vaccine. I encourage Tennesseans who have not been vaccinated to talk to their doctor to consider getting vaccinated and to make an informed decision. I worked with my doctor and received the vaccine and it has been a dependable tool to keep me healthy. 

The government will not mandate or require anyone to get a vaccine but I encourage you to consider it for yourself. It’s widely available, it’s effective and it’s free. 

More and more Tennesseans are choosing to be vaccinated, almost 100,000 per week and this is good news for the health of our state. 

If you do become sick with COVID, early intervention is important – please call your doctor to ask about treatments. Monoclonal antibodies are widely available at 72 centers across our state and are highly effective if used early. Your doctor can advise you on the best route for you. 

I want to acknowledge the frustration and fear that many are feeling – fear of COVID and its effects on your family, fear of government intervention and its effect, and frustration over everything from masks to information that changes by the day. 

Right now, some of the greatest frustration is occurring in our K-12 schools, especially around the issue of mask mandates. While local decision-making is important, individual decision-making by a parent on issues regarding the health and well-being of their child is the most important. 

No one cares about the health and well-being of a child more than a parent. I am signing an executive order today that allows parents to opt their children out of a school mask mandate if either a school board or health board enacts one over a district. 

Districts will make the decision they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being. I will not be calling a special session at this time. 

Our hospitals are struggling under the weight of COVID but those hospital beds are filled with adults. Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is in my view the wrong approach. 

Our hospitals and our health care workers are doing everything they can to take care of Tennesseans. That’s why I signed an executive order last week giving them maximum flexibility to do their jobs. My administration continues to provide funding and staffing support to ensure there are no barriers to hospitals facing strain. I commend them once again for their incredible work and service to Tennesseans. 

While we deal with this issue, it remains important that we keep our schools open and in person as we’ve seen the devastating loss of progress our kids have had academically when schools were remote or closed. Parents, if your children aren’t feeling well – keep them at home, stay in touch with your pediatrician. Good common sense will go a long way. 

I commend school boards across this state as most of you kept your schools open last year and are committed to doing so again this year. 

It’s frustrating that we’re headed into another school year with these challenges – it’s disheartening that the COVID challenge continues – but I’m proud of Tennesseans who, in spite of suffering, have persevered, and because of their character, there’s great hope. Thank you for joining today.

Rep. Griffey has a message for school districts

Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) speaks to a supporter at House Republican Caucus meeting in Nashville on Jan. 14, 2020 (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. Bruce Griffey has taken it upon himself to tell elected local school boards, special school districts, and education leaders around the state what their COVID-19 policies should be. The Paris Republican has sent a letter across the state (and copied it to all House and Senate members) declaring it “potentially” unlawful for districts to require face coverings or “create alternate learning environments for unvaccinated students, segregate such students, or treat them any differently.”

UPDATE: Griffey made some changes to the letter and got 11 GOP colleagues to sign on, including former Speaker Glen Casada of Franklin and Reps. Todd Warner of Chapel Hill, Jerry Sexton of Bean Station, and Terri Lynn Weaver of Lancaster).

Shelby County Schools is the only district in the state that has said it will require students to wear face coverings in the upcoming semester. Gov. Bill Lee said at a press conference last week that he oppose the move.

Read the whole (updated) Griffey letter here:

Dear Tennessee School Boards, Special School Districts and Directors:

As the 2021-2022 academic year is fast approaching, Tennessee families are anticipating whether or not masks will be required in our Tennessee public schools. For many, this is a contentious issue and one that crosses a wide spectrum of policy areas such as public health, parental rights, the role of government, and the constitutional rights of every citizen.

While we do acknowledge that there is a legitimate state interest in the safety of all Tennesseans, as legislators and elected officials, we must ensure that we continue to maintain the public trust in our government by above all else upholding the laws of our state. Citizens should rightfully expect that our state government will not exceed its authority by making rules that have no basis in state law or in our Tennessee Constitution.

On April 30, 2021, a Williamson County Chancery Court issued an order in Citizens v Golden (Case No. 20CV-49753) which carried an alternative ruling on the merits of the case indicating that requirements for face-coverings in schools have no basis in state law. The ruling stated, “The Court cannot find, as a matter of law, Defendants have acted within the authority given to them by the legislature when enacting face­ covering requirements,” and, ” … continued enforcement of face-covering requirements is not viable.”

Additionally, House Bill 13 was passed this year adding a new section to our Tennessee Code Annotated in Title 68, Chapter 5, Part 1 stating the following:

The governor shall not issue an executive order, a state agency or department shall not promulgate a rule, and a political subdivision of this state shall not promulgate, adopt, or enforce an ordinance or resolution, that requires a person to receive an immunization, vaccination, or injection for the SARS-CoV-2 virus or any variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

As this has now been signed into law by Governor Bill Lee and mady effective as of May 25, 2021, a vaccine, immunization, or injection for COVID-19 may not be required by any public school in the state of Tennessee for students or staff. Regardless of any recommendations or guidelines set forth by the CDC, WHO, or any health official, it must be understood that state law now prohibits a vaccine for COVID-19 to be mandated by the state, a county, a municipality, or any state agency in Tennessee.

To be clear, the legislature has not granted any authority to local school boards or superintendents to require face-coverings or promulgate any rules related to healthcare or the prevention of communicable diseases. As such, any attempts to create alternate learning environments for unvaccinated students, segregate such students, or treat them any differently would be potentially unlawful in the state of Tennessee.

We value our educators, and we value our students. Last year was hard on everyone. But our students suffered most of all. This year, let us focus on our students and ensure that they are our priority by providing them with the kind of education they so richly deserve. In this year’s special legislative session, we passed legislation that focused on those goals and provided increased resources to educators with the tools they need for a successful school year. Let’s lead the nation this year in putting our students and families first. We are the Volunteer State.

/signed/

Representative Bruce Griffey

Representative Bud Hulsey

Representative Tim Rudd

Representative Jerry Sexton

Representative Jay Reedy

Representative Rick Eldridge

Representative Terri Lynn Weaver

Representative Lowell Russell

Representative Mike Sparks

Representative Todd Warner

Representative Glen Casada

Representative Kirk Haston

More than 2,000 K-12 students test positive for COVID, but school-specific info to remain secret

More than 2,000 school-age children have tested positive for COVID-19 over the past two weeks, but state officials say they won’t release details of where the infections are occurring.

As of Tuesday, 2,099 students between ages 5 and 18 had tested positive, with Davidson County leading the way with 228 cases, followed by 209 in Hamilton County, 202 in Shelby County, 118 in Rutherford County, and 106 in Knox County.

Gov. Bill Lee’s Adminstration says federal privacy laws prevent the release of details about how many children have been infected in specific schools.

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

“It’s a balance,” Lee said. “It’s really important that people in a school district can’t figure out which children individually have a case.”

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said there are schools around the state that have fewer than 200 students, where disclosing an outbreak would make it easy to identify who had become sick. It’s unclear how that reasoning would apply to larger schools.

According to WPLN-FM, it’s the fourth time the Lee administration has flip-flopped on making information about the pandemic public. In March, officials at first refused to share county-specific data about infections and deaths. That decision was later reversed. The same went for keeping details of infections at nursing homes secret, which was later dropped amid pushback from the public and the media.

Lee had initially said the school infection information would be kept from the public, only to reverse himself later before once again saying the details will be confidential.

Lee extends school closure recommendation, corporate tax filing deadline

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is extending his recommended school closure period to April 24 amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican governor also announced Tuesday that the state’s deadline for filing corporate franchise and excise taxes will be extended from April to July 15.

State workers who have been working from home have been instructed to keep doing so until April 24. They had previously been scheduled to return to work at the end of the month. About 23,000 state employees have been working from home.

The governor mobilized the National Guard to assist with the state’s pandemic response. Lee said 250 guard members have been called up, including 150 who are medically trained. They will be assigned to assist with 35 remote assessment sights around the state as the virus spreads to more rural counties.

Lee calls on schools around Tennessee to shut down for rest of month

Gov. Bill Lee welcomes delegates to a summit on economically distressed counties in Linden on Aug. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is calling on schools around the state to close for the rest of the month to help stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic:

As the response to COVID-19 evolves, I urge every school district in Tennessee to close as soon as practically possible, with all schools expected to close by Friday, March 20, 2020 at the latest. Schools should remain closed through March 31, 2020 to further mitigate the spread of this infectious disease and we will issue further guidance prior to March 31. Superintendents and local leadership have the full support of my administration to determine effective dates for closure this week as they evaluate what is best for families within their respective districts. We understand the tremendous burden school closure places on families and we will continue to work with both the federal government and school districts to ensure we continue essential supports like meals for students in need. Every Tennessean has a role to play in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and I urge Tennesseans to be quick to help neighbors as new needs surface with the closure of schools.

Lee is scheduled to begin holding daily media briefings on the state’s handling of the coronavirus crisis on Monday afternoon. Reporters attending the press conferences will have to undergo coronavirus symptom and temperature checks prior to entering the room.

Lee proposes $40M for school safety officers

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business in Nashville on Feb. 19, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee is proposing a $40 million grant fund to pay for more school resource officers around the state.

Here’s the full release from Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced a new investment in school safety to better protect teachers and students and prepare against the threat of violence.

 

“The safety of our children and teachers is a top priority for my administration, and this investment ensures that school districts will have the resources they need to better protect our schools,” said Lee.

 

Gov. Lee is proposing a $40 million investment for the school safety grant fund. Legislation filed will provide additional changes to existing law to prioritize the distribution of these grants to school resource officers.

 

Approximately 500 Tennessee schools do not currently have SROs, and changes to the law will enable them to fill these positions. The proposal also accommodates underserved counties working to secure schools and fill SRO positions by adjusting limited match requirements to be proportional to districts’ fiscal capacity.

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Lee unveils ‘Future Workforce Initiative’

Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks to a Chamber of Commerce event in Memphis on Dec. 6, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s office unveiled a Future Workforce Initiative to promote science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) education training in K-12 schools.

Here’s the full release from Lee’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the Future Workforce Initiative to increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) training in K-12 schools as part of his first-year legislative agenda for education.

“Our agenda advocates for increased access to career and technical education for K-12 students and a key part of this includes prioritizing STEM training,” said Lee. “The Future Workforce Initiative is a direct response to the emerging technology industry and making sure our students are first in line to be qualified for technology jobs.”

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