TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – Tennessee House Speaker, Cameron Sexton, recently made comments in a joint press conference with Governor Bill Lee and Tennessee Commissioner of Education, Dr. Penny Schwinn, that made his stance on COVID-19 impacting schools clear.

“I sure hope that school systems do not require a mask mandate for those students, and if they do, I’m going to ask the Governor for a special session. If they close the schools, I’m going to ask the Governor for a special session,” said Sexton.

His comments are now prompting reactions from school district leaders across our region.

“I get the intent; he wants us in school, that’s fine. We want to be in school too. But that threat is not going to change what we have to do going forward. We have to do everything we can to stay in school,” said Unicoi County Director of Schools, John English.

School leaders in Northeast Tennessee told News Channel 11 that they all share the same goal, and that’s getting kids back into the classroom and keeping them there.

“In-person learning is the strongest option for our students and I think that’s what the message was,” said Washington County TN Director of Schools, Jerry Boyd. “I think we have to make some difficult local decisions as we always do and if there’s a need to call a special session, then I hope it maintains focus. As a state, what we need to do is what’s best for children and how we’re going to support school systems and schools locally to make sure that can happen.”

However, a recent spike in cases is also spiking fear. Following the last academic year, learning loss became a harsh reality. The 2020-2021 TCAP Assessment scores were released on Monday and showed an increase in students scoring below average. State education officials attribute the lower scores and learning loss to the constant school changes that took place due to COVID throughout the past year.

Fortunately, district leaders feel this year will be a return to relative normalcy.

“We do feel like we’re in a different situation this year than we were this time last year. Between the vaccinations and just knowledge about it,” said English.

Districts are doing what they can to keep students safe and are recommending – but not requiring – both masks and vaccinations for those eligible.

This all comes at the same time there’s been a rise in pediatric cases of COVID-19 across our region. Officials said there are concerns when it comes to keeping kids safe, but as of right now, district leaders are confident of the plans they have in place.