‘It’s dangerous:’ Calls for Tennessee COVID-19 special session gaining pushback from health leaders, local senator

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TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) — A group of Tennessee lawmakers is taking action, saying they want to hold a special legislative session to vote on limiting the ability of localities to issue certain COVID-19 related mandates.

One of the biggest issues: masking in schools.

Under Tennessee law, local school boards statewide are currently within their right to make their own decisions about masking in schools. That could change pending a special legislative session.

“These are one of the few mitigating measures that we’ve got to protect our children,” said Dr. Stephen May, medical director of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department.

May agrees with the CDC in recommending universal masking in K-12 institutions.

On the other side, Tennessee’s House speaker made his stance clear.

Speaker Cameron Sexton said in a press conference last week, “If we need to come into a special session to say that school systems cannot mandate masks on kids, I’m happy to do that. I’m sure our members are happy to do that.”

Unicoi County Director of Schools John English says while masking is only recommended in their system, schools should be able to make their own calls.

“Every system and every community and every district has to look at their situation and make a decision based on what is happening in their community,” English said.

Wednesday, Sexton put pen to paper asking Gov. Bill Lee to call the special legislative session. More than 70 Tennessee House Republican representatives signed on in support.

But, not every Republican lawmaker fully agrees.

“I get concerned as a conservative, when you talk about a more centralized form of government taking control. I don’t think that’s good whether it’s in Nashville or it’s in Washington,” said Republican state Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol).

Lundberg says he would be hesitant about banning local decision making, especially regarding masking in schools.

“I like local control, I like the folks locally deciding what is best for them, including parents being involved in that process. I think that is crucial,” said Lundberg.

Some health leaders are worried about the direction lawmakers are taking with calls to limit school authority.

“It’s more than concerning, it is dangerous. It is dangerous to our children and it removes some of the most effective protective tools we’ve got to mitigate the spread of the disease,” May said.

Sexton also said he wants to take action on schools that close their doors, only offering remote learning.

“I don’t think we need that threat of ‘we will pull funding if schools close.’ Nobody is looking to close for no reason,” said English.

The governor has not yet announced if he will approve the special called session.

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