Sexton asks Lee for special session to address Tennessee schools' COVID response

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Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton sent a letter Wednesday to Gov. Bill Lee, asking him to call a special session to address COVID-19 responses from the state’s school districts and local governments.

The letter was signed by all 73 House Republicans.

“We believe there is a need to curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials, confirm a parent's right to make decisions that impact the mental and physical health of their children, provide support and direction to schools to ensure educators are properly compensated for COVID-19 leave, and protect all Tennesseans from misdirected mandates designed to limit their ability to make their own decisions,” the letter read.

Several Tennessee school districts voted in recent weeks to have mask mandates to start the school year, including Henry County Schools in Paris, Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Metro Nashville Public Schools and Williamson County Schools south of Nashville.

“We cannot support a special session where the controlling party is only concerned with punishing private business owners and school districts for exercising medically appropriate precautions to keep people safe,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “This pandemic has claimed the lives of nearly 13,000 Tennesseans and we should all be fighting the virus – not playing politics. The special session our families deserve would focus on affordable healthcare through Medicaid expansion.”

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who presides over the Senate, said in a statement lawmakers have lost focus and he believes local control is the best way to keep students safe.

“Amid all the controversy regarding masks, vaccine passports and the like, we appear to have lost sight of the one thing that truly matters: keeping children in the classroom so they can learn,” McNally said. “Education is of paramount importance. Nothing else. Test scores have proven that this pandemic has eroded our progress and threatens the very future of our children and grandchildren.

“I remain convinced that locally elected school boards and private school organizations know how best to manage operations during this pandemic so that students can remain healthy, learning and, most importantly, in the classroom,” McNally said. “If a special session is called, I will work with Governor Lee, Speaker Sexton and all my colleagues to keep this our mission focus. Children learn best in a classroom. And they can only do that if they remain healthy, vibrant and safe.”

Sexton warned last week he would take action if schools approved mask mandates.

“Students need and must be in in-person learning in the classrooms,” Sexton, R-Crossville, said Aug. 2 during a news conference regarding student performance results. “And I sure hope that every school system in this state, after this data is released, does not shut their schools. Because, if they do, I am going to ask the governor for legislation to allow those parents in those school districts to take their money through school of choice and go wherever they deem they need to go.”

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs tweeted Tuesday he supported Sexton calling for a special session, saying “our kids are already falling behind and shouldn’t be forced to overcome any further impediments to their education.”

“Haven’t heard anyone asking for closures, only heard people asking for what Doctors and Public Health officials are calling for – masks required in schools and on buses,” Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, tweeted in response. “Seems logical, if you want kids in school, require masks so they can stay there. Make common sense common again!”

Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, and 11 other representatives signed a letter last week to the state’s school districts and fellow legislators stating he believed the state’s school districts did not have the right to create mask mandates.

“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,” the letter read. “As such, any attempts to create alternative learning environments for unvaccinated students, segregate such students, or treat them any differently would be potentially unlawful in the state of Tennessee.”

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