Tennessee mask opt-out order may violate federal law, US secretary of education writes

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The Biden administration is taking aim at states that are blocking mask mandates for school districts.

United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote a letter to Governor Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn Wednesday regarding Tennessee’s decision to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates.

Secretary Cardona said the latest action by Tennessee’s governor endangers the safe reopening of schools for in-person learning.

On Monday, Lee signed Executive Order 84 which gives parents the ability to opt their children out of mask mandates enacted by local school or health boards. The decision was made despite a swift rise in COVID-19 pediatric cases.

Now the Department of Education is stepping in, following threats from lawmakers against school districts failing to obey the executive order.

“This is deeply distressing,” Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Chair of the White House COVID-19 Equity Task Force said. “We know what works to keep our kids safe, we know that our kids should be in school. That’s where they’re going to do best.”

“The safe return to in-person instruction requires that school districts be able to protect the health and safety of students and educators,” Cardona wrote to Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn.

“It is really frustrating, disturbing to see politics interfering in this way,” Nunez-Smith said. “President Biden came out and he asked Secretary Cardona to use really every power and every lever to support those leaders of schools and those public health officials who are doing the right thing.”

Secretary Cardona continued to say the executive order puts in-person learning, “At-risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by federal law.”

Rep. John Clemmons (D-Nashville) said the executive order may not stand up in a Tennessee courtroom. “This executive order is suspect on state law grounds as well I don’t believe that the governor has the statutory authority to enter the type of order that he did in Executive Order 84.”

Clemmons said he applauds districts that are ignoring the governor’s order.

“They’re looking out for the health and well-being of their students, that’s their job,” Clemmons said. “The governor’s order was in his self-interest, it was a political decision.”

In a tweet Thursday afternoon, Governor Lee responded to the Department of Education’s letter, writing, “Parents know better than the government what’s best for their children.”

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