‘I’m embarrassed by the leadership in this state:’ Tennessee lawmakers disagree on mask mandates in schools

Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The debate of masks in schools is back to being center-stage. Tennessee’s House Speaker plans to ask for a special session if schools issue mask mandates.

“Punished by telling them they can’t mandate a mask? If that’s the punishment, sure. Sure. 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,” explained Republican Cameron Sexton.

He made the statements during a press conference Monday to share the latest Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program results. State leaders said 95% of students participated in the testing administered during the spring semester. Results showed a learning loss in every content area and in every grade level including a double-digit decline in math and science.

“It’s clear that minority students have been negatively affected disproportionately and those data are unacceptable in this state. because every student in Tennessee should have access to a quality education regardless of their income level, regardless of their zip code, and we can’t stop until that’s true for every student,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee.

Sexton said the results were an indication that closing schools were not the best way to help students succeed.

“There were some who would come to us and said there wasn’t going to be a learning loss, they thought that a virtual education would work,” said Sexton. “I think the data today shows that that does not work, that you have a huge loss and it would be interesting to dig down into the districts who were closed the whole year and see how negative they impacted their students.”

State Representative Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville) said Tennessee’s leaders need to do better for its students.

“We expect a little drop-off and it’s a learning curve for everyone that was involved so the test scores aren’t something that was unexpected,” Dixie said. “We know we’re going to have some work to do and this is just a starting point. Now we know we’ve had 18 months to figure out what we need to do better.”

Representative Dixie called Tennessee’s leadership on the issue an embarrassment, saying he supported masks in schools.

“Honestly I’m not surprised, I’m embarrassed by the leadership in this state when it comes to protecting our children,” said Dixie. “We’ve had 18 months to figure out how we can get our kids back in school safely and get them into a protected environment. We failed them at that. Yes, we are the leaders in this state but we aren’t the experts when it comes to education.”

Sexton maintains lawmakers were the ones elected to make the decision for their constituents.

“My daughter’s seven years old, making her wear a mask in the classroom all day long is beneficial to her? Hmm… I’m not so sure about that,” said Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton. “We can listen to healthcare people, we can listen to economists but at the end of the day we’re elected and we make the decision base on the information that we have.”

He felt children were not severely impacted by COVID-19 if they’re infected.

“Right now, the survival rate for a child is 99.99999%. There’s a lot of things more dangerous to children right now on the death rate thank this,” Sexton said. “I think if you talk to parents, parents should be the ones to make the decision, like the Governor said, for their kids if they wear them to school or not to school and requiring a kindergartner to wear a mask 8 hours a day, I don’t think is realistic especially when you see the data for the youth as it is.”

Dixie has a different view of parent choice when it comes to the pandemic.

“The Governor and Speaker Sexton made comments about choice and we have to make sure that we give parents a choice and the choice is that if they cannot have a mask mandate, to give them a choice that if they don’t want their child next to someone that hasn’t been vaccinated or doesn’t wear a mask, that’s that parent’s choice,” said Dixie. “We have a lot of children that live in nuclear families where they have the grandparents, the parents, aunts, uncles, in the same household so this child can potentially be a carrier.”

Sexton threatened to propose legislation that would take money from districts that close due to the pandemic.

“I sure hope that a school system in this state, after this data [TCAP results] is released, does not shut their schools. If they do, I’m going to ask the governor for legislation to allow those parents and those school districts to take their money through school choice to go wherever they deem they need to go,” Sexton said. “There needs to be a message to these school systems it’s unacceptable to close schools or systems in our state.”

Dixie said state leaders need to also look at the long-term impacts of refusing mask mandates.

“I think it’s very short-sighted. I think it’s very ignorant of the Governor and the speaker to pass a bill that if you do this you get the repercussions that they’re proposing,” said Dixie. “It goes to show that they’re not interested in governing for all, they’re interested in their personal political agendas.”

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