NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The federal government is pushing back on Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s mask opt-out order for schools.
“I really wish we didn’t have to take this step. We should be talking about school reopening, we should be talking about all the opportunities students are going to have after 18 months of a pandemic that disrupted their learning in ways we couldn’t even imagine two to three years ago,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told News 2. “That’s what we should be focusing on. But instead, we’re talking about the civil rights of students to go into schools that are safe, using the mitigation strategies that we know work.”
The U.S. Department of Education opened civil rights investigations into five states, including Tennessee. The states have banned or limited mask requirements in schools, but federal education leaders said the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.
“We’re not here mandating masks. To me, local districts should be the ones determining whether or not masks should be used as part of their mitigation strategies in conjunction with the advice and guidance of the local health officials. That’s what worked in our country last year to reopen school safely,” Cardona said. “Unfortunately, there are several states that are thinking that a different approach is better, but they’re leaving many students behind.”
Federal law says students with disabilities must be given access to a “free appropriate public education” alongside their peers without disabilities. But the education department says states that outlaw mask mandates could be preventing schools from taking necessary steps to protect students with disabilities or medical conditions.
Governor Lee said his office is reviewing the details of the investigation after receiving it Monday to see what steps need to be taken next.
“My primary reaction is that I think it’s very important that we respect and protect the rights of everyone including the parents and their decision-making process with regard to their children,” Lee said during a news conference Tuesday.
Secretary Cardona said that mentality would be fine if the choice those parents made didn’t impact other people’s children.
“When we’re unvaccinated children spread it more than last year, this delta variant is more transmissible than last year’s COVID. So it’s one thing to say I want to make a choice for my own child. But when your child is in a community, the choice that you make impacts other people’s children, and other people’s children may have vulnerabilities that your child doesn’t have,” Cardona explained. “So we need to think, as a community and we need to protect one another. We’re not done with this pandemic. I want it behind us too. But we’re not done with this pandemic.”
Secretary Cardona said he wants to work with state and local leaders to get out of this pandemic in a way where learning can be accelerated.
“It first starts with making sure that they have a safe school environment,” Cardona said. “So the goal is really to work with leaders in Tennessee to make sure that we’re doing everything in our power to give our local leaders and health officials the tools that they need to do their jobs best.”
He maintained that it’s best for students to remain in the classroom because that’s where they learn best.
“Across the country, we’re finding in places where they’re looser with mitigation strategies, they’re quicker to close. they’re quicker to be back in remote learning, where we know students don’t learn best,” Cardona said. “So we can learn from our mistakes, we can move forward, implement the mitigation strategies, communicate that expectation, not only in school but in the community. Typically, it’s the community spread that causes schools to close. When schools are following mitigation strategies, they’re some of the safest places for our students to be if we follow the rules.”