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Gov. Lee to extend order letting parents opt out of masks for students

Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday he’ll extend his executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of following local school mask mandates that protect them against the coronavirus.
He also said he’ll convene a special legislative session this fall to approve funding to support Ford Motor Co.’s planned electric vehicle manufacturing complex in West Tennessee, announced just this week. However, the governor and his staff promised that issues related to education and COVID, including masks in schools, won’t be on the agenda.
“We have much to decide and much to confirm about that deal, so we need to stay focused,” said Lee, calling Ford’s arrival a “transformational economic moment in our state’s history.”
Speaking with reporters in Dickson, west of Nashville, the governor said he’s disappointed by three federal court rulings against his Aug. 16 executive order, which is due to expire Oct. 5. Judges in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville sided with some parents who said the governor’s order violates federal law by creating unsafe learning environments for students with disabilities who are more at risk of severe illness from COVID.
Lee said he supports appeals filed earlier this week by the state attorney in two of those cases affecting families in Shelby and Knox counties.
“Parents know best what is best for their children and should have the last word on health and welfare issues for children,” he said.
A study released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Tennessee leads the nation in COVID-related school closures so far this school year. The report showed that more than 500 schools across the state have closed for at least one day due to the virus. Tennessee was one of the first states to kick off the academic year, with most schools opening in early August and increasing opportunities for exposure to the more contagious delta variant.
Asked whether universal masking in classrooms could help schools remain open, Lee emphasized the importance of getting shots that shield people against the virus.
“The best defense we have against this pandemic … is vaccination,” he said. “We’ll continue to say that.”
Children ages 11 and under aren’t eligible for the vaccines yet, but federal approval for school-age children ages 5-11 is expected in the next month.
This developing story will be updated.

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