Cameron Sexton calls special session, says parents should decide on masks


Tennessee House President Cameron Sexton said the choice of whether students wear masks in schools should be a “parenting decision” and not left to the Tennessee General Assembly or local health departments.

“I don’t think it’s up to the General Assembly. I don’t think it’s up to the school board. I think it’s up to the parents,” Sexton, R-Crossville, said at a press conference in Memphis Friday afternoon. Earlier this week, Sexton said he was considering a special legislative session to ban mandatory masks in schools.

His comments on Friday came the same day the Shelby County Health Department released an amendment to the health directive that requires masks to be worn in schools from Monday. The speaker’s comments will likely put him even more at odds with Shelby County schools and show the partisan divide between the Republican legislative leader and the largely Democratic Shelby County.

Sexton also didn’t rule out the idea of ​​a special session. He expressed support for Florida legislation that could allow students and parents to receive school vouchers if they believe a school mask requirement amounts to harassment.

“But hopefully we have a special session and then see what comes out of it. Florida did something today that I’m very intrigued with,” Sexton said. “I think that’s what we should be doing, which is if the parents don’t agree with the school boards mandate for the mask, they should be given the choice of which school where children can take their children out, take their money and go to any school they choose at. ”

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Leaders supported “local control”, now “parents’ choice”

As Shelby County Schools and then the Shelby County Health Department issued mask warrants for students, state leaders who previously supported “local control” began to emphasize on the “choice of parents”.

State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn last week said she supported local control of the masking during a visit to schools in Shelby County. She spoke at a press conference on Friday and said the decision was up to “local communities and families.”

Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey just hours before Sexton spoke in Memphis told the conference that local school boards making masking decisions should create mask guidelines. ” strongly influenced by the opinion of parents ”.

“As a pediatrician and a mother of four, I will always tell you that parents make the best decisions for their own children,” Piercey said.

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She later added: “The Department of Health has already done that, we have passed on the CDC guidelines, we have passed on the AAP guidelines, we have nothing to add to that. These two big agencies nationals have spoken. ”

“And we’re saying to districts and parents, ‘It’s your choice,’” Piercey said.

The Tennessee Department of Education is taking its COVID-19 guidelines from the Department of Health.

It is customary for the state health department to make medical requirements public health issues. Its rules, for example, require elementary and college students in public and private schools to receive certain vaccines.

Sexton Gets Shot In Shelby County Schools

When asked if mandatory masking in schools could help students learn by keeping them in the classroom, Sexton took a verbal hit at schools in Shelby County.

“Well that would’ve been a great argument last year before Shelby County closed its schools – when they said they didn’t have the ventilation or the air system in place to even wear a mask and go to school, ”Sexton said. “Now all of a sudden I guess they have the ability to go to school, but now they say they have to wear a mask.”

Shelby County schools have always required masks. It opened as an option to students last March. In April, the state’s board of education passed a rule that prevented districts from offering a mix of in-person and virtual learning for the next school year.

Masking in schools is likely to prevent disruption to learning, keeping more students in class in person if and when cases of COVID-19 are diagnosed, local health experts have said.

Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville speaks during a fundraising event for Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Columbia, at Westbury House on the Square in Columbia on Monday, August 5, 2019.

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“The large members of the quarantines that we saw in some areas around us could have been avoided if the children in these classrooms had worn masks,” said Dr Nick Hysmith, pediatric infectious disease specialist at the hospital. for children Le Bonheur.

Advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, remarked Hysmith, made an exception for “close contacts” – a person deemed to be at risk of becoming infected because of their proximity to a sick person – when the close contacts are children inside a school who were within 3 to 6 years of age the sick child’s feet and that the children were hiding properly.

“You put all of these things together: more contagious, less masking, less social distancing, and we have a formula for large epidemics occurring in settings where large numbers of people are not vaccinated,” Dr Manoj Jain, a an infectious disease doctor who has advised local leaders throughout the pandemic, told The Commercial Appeal.

“The delta variant is ruthless in terms of chasing people who are not vaccinated,” Jain said.

Sexton minimizes impact of COVID on children

Sexton on Friday downplayed the level of COVID-19 in children and, instead, attributed much of the stress on children’s hospitals to respiratory syncytial virus or RSV. According to the Memphis and Shelby County COVID-19 Joint Task Force, about 25% of active local COVID-19 cases are in children.

“What you have right now in children’s hospitals is a lot of RSV mixed with a little bit of COVID,” Sexton said. “The number of RSVs is on the rise. Why is it on the rise? Because last year they didn’t go to school in Shelby County. ”

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Speaking at Friday’s press conference, Piercey said concerns about hospital capacity she voiced earlier in the week were due to higher than usual hospital admission rates and personnel issues. While the epidemic curves of RSV and COVID-19 in children are similar, she said hospitals are seeing a “slight increase” in pediatric cases of COVID-19.

“So when you add in more COVID hospitalizations, it’s just enough to tip the scales sometimes,” she said. “To put this in perspective, we don’t have crowds of pediatric hospitalizations due to COVID.”

Piercey said hospitals are seeing more children, but there is no evidence yet to show that the delta variant creates more serious infections in children.

Local experts said they are still hearing whether the increase in hospitalizations was purely attributed to the number of infections or to more serious illness.

“We are now seeing children with respiratory symptoms, shortness of breath, requiring oxygen … as well as children requiring intubation and management in our intensive care areas,” said Hysmith, the pediatrician at Le Bonheur on Thursday. .

Laura Testino covers education and children’s issues for the business call. Contact her at [email protected] or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino

Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman.

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