Nashville's top school officials on Thursday agreed to enforce an universal mask mandate for the upcoming school year as part of an effort to protect children too young to receive the COVID-19 vaccine while the pandemic resurges across the state.
The Metro Nashville Board of Education voted 8-1 to reinstate the mask rule after previously announcing to leave the option up to families. However, as case counts, hospitalizations and death numbers have all increased significantly over the past few weeks, school leaders reevaluated their decision.
“We have a responsibility to the greater good for all of our children,” board member Sharon Gentry said.
The move was quickly praised by concerned parents and medical experts who point to Tennessee's hospitals largely filling up with unvaccinated coronavirus patients.
To date, only three out of Tennessee's 95 counties have plans to implement mask mandates for students and teachers when school resumes later this month. Shelby County, which encompasses Memphis, was the first to unveil its plans to have masks, with Hancock County making a similar announcement earlier this month.
Some Republican leaders have vowed to fight mask mandates in schools, but it's unclear how successful they'll be in that challenge.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, a Republican from Crossville, recently told reporters that he would ask Gov. Bill Lee to call a special legislative session to pass legislation allowing parents to have the option to leave schools that mandate masks or close during the upcoming school year. Lee has yet to say he would agree to such a request.
Meanwhile, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican from Oak Ridge, has said he favors local school officials making their own decisions. Adam Kleinheider, McNally's spokesperson, said in an email that the Republican will work with Lee, Sexton and all lawmakers should a special session be called.
Sexton said he was “starting discussions with House members."
Also Thursday, the Memphis suburb of Germantown removed its order requiring city employees to get vaccinated by Labor Day or face possible firing, The Commercial Appeal reported. Questions arose about the legality of the requirement. The suburb is still strongly encouraging its employees to be vaccinated and issued guidelines for mandatory testing of unvaccinated employees.
Tennessee is currently averaging about 1,074 COVID-19 hospitalizations according to data through Aug. 3 from the Department of Health and Human Services. About 39.4% of the state's population have fully completed their vaccination, among the lowest in the country.