Even as the number of sick children continues to increase across Tennessee and nearly all ICU hospital beds are full, Gov. Bill Lee responded to a letter from the Biden administration this week saying he disagrees with the country's top education official.
"Parents know better than the government what’s best for their children," Lee posted on Twitter after he was sent a letter written by U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
On Monday, Lee issued an executive order requiring school districts to allow parents and families to choose to opt-out of mask requirements. The opt-out does not require a parent to provide documentation for an exemption recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
State leaders threatened legislative action Tuesday, saying if the state's largest public school districts in Nashville and Memphis don't comply with the order, a special legislative session may take place.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally this week said he was alarmed at the two districts' responses to Lee's new order, which he argued was a compromise between upholding the authority of local school boards to set their own policies and allowing parents to have a say in the matter.
Metro Schools Director Adrienne Battle this week said Nashville schools would continue requiring students to wear masks based on the local school board's existing policy, which permits only medical exemptions.
In Memphis, Joris Ray, superintendent of Shelby County Schools, posted on Twitter this week, "MASKS ARE REQUIRED for all employees, students, and visitors in our schools and offices."
Lee's response to the Biden administration comes as Tennessee reported more than 6,500 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, including 942 among children age 10 and under.
Nearly 2,500 people were hospitalized by the virus, including 61 kids — the highest total of pediatric patients reported at any time in the pandemic.
In addition the state reported 51 more deaths, which is the most on any single day since February.
In the letter addressed to Lee and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, Cardona wrote the state's current mask policy for students may infringe upon districts' federal obligations to provide safe in-person learning plans.
While Lee may be at odds with districts implementing mask mandates, his current opt-out order places districts at odds with federal requirements, Cardona wrote.
The letter reads that policy "against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19" could hinder school districts' implementation of a safe in-person learning environment.
"The department stands with the dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction," Cardona wrote.
The department will monitor whether or not the state is meeting all of its federal requirements.
Nearly all ICU beds full
As the virus continues to sweep Tennessee, all intensive care unit beds were full at most hospitals in every major metropolitan area in the state Thursday, the Tennessee Hospital Association reported.
THA President Dr. Wendy Long, joined by countless other medical professionals, urged Tennesseans to get vaccinated and wear masks in indoor public places to slow the spread of the virus and lessen the strain on struggling hospitals.
Tennessee has seen a tremendous increase in coronavirus hospitalizations since the pandemic returned in force.
Since July 1, the number of Tennesseans hospitalized by the virus has jumped from about 200 to Thursday's nearly 2,500.