Protesters showed up at the Tipton County Board of Education in larger numbers Monday morning, carrying signs and standing up for their belief that they should have a choice whether or not to mask their children in schools.
Monday afternoon, Gov. Bill Lee gave the choice back to parents, issuing an executive order allowing parents to opt-out of mask mandates in schools, on buses and at school functions implemented by school boards and health departments.
“No one cares about the health and well-being of a child more than a parent,” the governor said. “I am signing an executive order today that allows parents to opt their children out of a school mask mandate if either a school board or health board enacts one over a district. Districts will make the decision they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being.”
The move comes after weeks of discussions by the state legislature about masks and mandating their use. The executive order goes into effect immediately and will require parents to notify schools in writing.
See more: Read Executive Order 84, issued by Gov. Bill Lee on Monday, Aug. 16
It seems to be a win for the parents who want the choice over whether or not to send their children to school wearing a mask, parents like Richard Gray who is acting as spokesperson for the group of parents protesting Monday. He said the original re-opening plan where masks were encouraged but not required allowed parents to choose. And, ultimately, they just want the choice.
“If you want your child to wear a mask, if you don’t, fine,” he said. “I thought that was very fitting.”
The protests by Tipton County’s parents followed last week’s 7-1-1 decision by the school board to begin requiring masks, a mandate which was implemented Monday and was expected to continue through the board’s next meeting on Thursday, Sept. 9. There were approximately 100 people at Monday morning’s protest, including some children. On Friday, a smaller group stood out front in protest.
“The freedom for our students to choose to wear a mask was taken away and I don’t think that’s fair to our children in the least,” Gray said. “This is not ‘we want the mask mandate to go away.’ If you want to mask your child that’s fine. We just want the option. We just want them to go back to the original re-opening policy of encouraged but not forced. They’re educators and I get it and I understand they have some say in our child’s health but we have full say in our child’s health.”
Gray said his cousin, who is a nurse at LeBonheur, told him the numbers she’s seeing aren’t matching with the statistics being shared about COVID-19 and that she said RSV is a much bigger problem.
“They are not seeing as much COVID as they’re letting on and that’s directly from the horse’s mouth, from a nurse at LeBonheur,” he said.
Gray reiterated he didn’t want people to think they wanted everyone to go maskless, they just want the choice as they believed they would have in the original re-opening plan.
What the hospitals are reporting
Meanwhile, officials with LeBonheur Children’s Hospital who can go on record said last week they fear they are headed toward the darkest of days.
The Methodist-LeBonheur system reported an increase in pediatric hospitalizations recently as COVID-19 cases have increased. On Friday the system reported 20 children were hospitalized with COVID-19 with seven of those in critical care. The week prior, only six children total had been hospitalized.
At the school board meeting Thursday, Baptist-Tipton Administrator Parker Harris told board members there’s been a dramatic rise in cases and most of them in the 14-18-year-old range.
“We’ve seen a rapid rise in cases over the last four weeks,” he told the board. “In the early stages of the pandemic we were seeing a lot of mortality and a lot of transmission among the elder population. We’re seeing that age range drop dramatically. We’re seeing over 15 percent of the newly-active positive cases are in the 18 and under category. The highest rate of transmission is in 14-18. That four-year span seems to be the most transmittable age range.”
Based on data released by the Tennessee Department of Health on Monday, there are an estimated 103 school-aged children in Tipton County with active, confirmed cases of COVID-19. Of the 308 cases diagnosed here in the last week, 67 have been in patients aged 5-18. That is 21.7 percent. Only the 21-40 age range, with 33 percent of cases, is higher.
There are currently 560 active, confirmed cases in Tipton County. At the peak of the pandemic, last winter, there were 699 active cases at one time.
Last week was the first week of school and, with children in close proximity, cases are expected to increase. Superintendent Dr. John Combs said only about 10 percent of students were masked during the first week of school.
Hospital resources are also strained due to an increase in RSV, which is a virus usually seen in the cooler months.
Last week, board member Steve Clark said a student who’d tested positive over the weekend attended nearly a full day of school on Monday before the health department notified the administration the test results. That helped spur his decision to bring it up at the meeting.
“Some people just don’t want to follow the rules,” he said. “If everyone followed the rules we wouldn’t have to do this. But they’re not doing it.”
Further he said if a child contracted COVID-19 in school and later died he wouldn’t be able to live with himself knowing the board’s mandate may have prevented it.
“I didn’t choose to be on the board to make life and death decisions for other people’s kids,” he said. “I never thought I’d be in this position.”