kids in masks

A dispute between local school districts implementing masking requirements and Tennessee government officials escalated this week as President Joe Biden said he would “use all available tools” to help districts facing pushback from conservative state governments.

GOP Gov. Bill Lee on Monday signed an executive order giving parents the right to have their K-12 students opt out of local school mask rules, though some of those school districts and legal experts are questioning whether he had the power to do that.

After Lee signed the order, Metro Nashville and Shelby County school leaders both said they would continue to require masking.

The defiance left GOP Lt. Gov. Randy McNally “extremely appalled and alarmed.”

“This order was a compromise that still allows school boards to ensure the health and safety of their students while recognizing the rights of parents to decide what is best for their children,” he said. “The governor and the General Assembly cannot and will not allow lawful orders to be defied. If these systems persist in resisting the order, we will have no choice but to exercise other remedial options."

But Biden is now jumping in the fray.

"We're not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children," he said Wednesday.

In a letter to Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, Biden education secretary Miguel Cardona warned that the executive order could violate federal law.

“The safe return to in-person instruction requires that school districts be able to protect the health and safety of students and educators, and that families have confidence that their schools are doing everything possible to keep students healthy,” Cardona wrote. “Tennessee’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals 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.”

Thousands of Tennessee students and teachers around the state have contracted COVID-19 or have been forced to quarantine due to possible exposure in the early weeks of the new school year. The state is reporting more than 500 new daily COVID-19 infections among those 10 and younger, and more than 50 minors were hospitalized with the virus as of earlier this week — the highest figures for children since the start of the pandemic.

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