Local lawmakers, parents react to mask opt-out executive order

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order Monday that gives parents the ability to opt out their children of any mask mandate at schools.

The order comes a day before Johnson City Schools begins a four-week mask mandate that includes an opt out for students if parents sign and present a form to school administrators. The mandate was approved at a school board meeting last Friday.

Johnson City Schools parent Elizabeth Ortiz has three students that have moved to online learning because she has concerns about COVID-19. She said Lee’s order does not account for the impact of unmasking on others.

“Their choice affects everybody so them sending their unmasked child to school around kids that even are masked, you are potentially letting your child spread the virus,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz said her plan is to keep her children online, but the order to require opt-outs will keep them there further.

Ballad Health released a statement Monday urging parents to mask their children at schools.

Tennessee state Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said Lee’s executive order puts parental choice first.

“Decisions are best made at the local level, and ultimately parents are as local as it gets and that’s where it should be,” Lundberg said.

The mandate at Johnson City Schools will be one of the first to reflect the executive order. It comes as 73 students in three classrooms at Indian Trail Intermediate School were sent to online learning starting Monday. School and health officials reported an increasing number of students testing positive for COVID-19 in Indian Trail’s Coyote 1 hallway, so they have closed down the hall for two weeks.

State Rep. Tim Hicks (R-Gray) was one of several Republican lawmakers to request a special session. Gov. Lee said the special session will not happen after signing the executive order.

Hicks said Johnson City’s mandate sets the standard for mask mandates under the order.

“That should be the model,” Hicks said. “Johnson City did a really good job of doing that. I think I heard in some comments that the governor mentioned Johnson City’s decision.”

In Johnson City schools, several hundred students have opted out before the mandate begins Tuesday. Johnson City School Board President Kathy Hall said the percentage of students opting out varies at different school levels.

“In our elementary schools, it’s a little bit below 10 percent. In our 5th through 8th grade, it is about 10 percent, and then in our high school where more of our students have had the opportunity to be vaccinated it’s a little higher. It’s about 18 percent,” Hall said.

Johnson City Schools’ mandate lasts until Sept. 10. The school board must approve any continuation to the mandate.

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