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VOL. 45 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 5, 2021

Governor extends school mask opt-out order again

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Friday again extended an executive order that allows parents to opt students out of school COVID-19 mask requirements that federal judges have blocked from applying in three counties.

The Republican's decision maintains the status quo on the opt-out order for two weeks while he considers whether to sign a broad coronavirus bill that would limit mask policies in schools even further. He first issued the mask opt-out order in mid-August and extended it in late September.

Lee on Friday also extended the ongoing state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic until Nov. 19, while members of his administration "continue analyzing impacts of recent legislation & how it affects certain provisions," he wrote on Twitter.

During last week's three-day special session, Republican lawmakers passed a proposal that would in part largely prohibit government entities — including public schools — from implementing mask mandates. Those entities would only be allowed to require masks if they lived in a county with a rolling average 14-day COVID-19 infection rate of at least 1,000 per 100,000 resident while the state is under a state of emergency. There are no counties that currently meet that threshold.

Even then, mask mandates would continue to be limited in use. The school's principal would have to request the mandate to the school board. If approved by the board, the mandate could only apply to that particular school — not the whole school district — up to 14 days. Religious and medical exemptions would be required.

Under the bill, schools are also among the entities eligible to apply for exemptions to the proposed vaccine and mask mandate bans if they reach out to the state's comptroller's office and show they would lose federal funding by complying with the state law.

Schools that institute a mask mandate would have to provide N95-equivalent masks for students and staff, though the bill bars schools from using state money for any mask requirement.

Federal court rulings have allowed school districts in Shelby — which includes Memphis — Williamson and Knox counties to have mask mandates without the governor's broad opt-out option. A judge has ordered Knox, which centers on Knoxville, to implement a mask mandate in schools. Williamson, a suburb south of Nashville, allowed religious and medical exemptions even before the governor's broader opt-out option.

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