SCS still requiring masks as district reviews new order from Gov. Lee

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Masks continue to be required for all employees, students, and visitors who enter SCS schools despite an executive order signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

Gov. Lee signed an executive order Monday letting parents opt their children out of COVID-related mask mandates in K-12 schools, after a few school districts, including Shelby County Schools, issued mask requirements for students and others.

RELATED: Gov. Lee signs executive order giving parents ability to opt-out of school mask mandates

SCS Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray said he and school board members are consulting with Shelby County Schools General Counsel to explore and review the legalities of Governor Lee’s Executive Order 84.

Supt. Ray said, “In the meantime and in alignment with the Shelby County Health Department Order No. 24, masks will be required for all employees, students, and visitors who enter schools and District offices.”

The Shelby County Health Department released the following statement:

The Shelby County Health Department will comply with the Governor’s Executive Order No. 84 and make adjustments as necessary. SCHD continues to encourage everyone eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the best protection against the virus. We also continue to support the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics that children age two and older, teachers, and staff members at schools, preschools and day cares should wear masks in indoor settings particularly in regions with high transmission of the COVID-19 virus, which includes Shelby County and all of Tennessee. SCHD will also continue to fulfill its statutory responsibility to investigate and isolate cases, as well as trace and quarantine contacts.

Dr. Ray was not available for an interview.

“I’m not focusing on politics at all,” said school board member Michelle McKissack. “This is not what this is about. COVID doesn’t know about politics. I want to keep my child safe.”

McKissack is a mother, a school board member, and a leader on the COVID-19 Task Force.

She said she is shocked by Gov.Lee’s executive order giving parents the power to opt-out of the school mask mandates.

“Wearing masks honestly is a no-brainer for me,” she said. ‘That’s what we need to have the children do to keep them as safe as possible.”

Collierville Schools announced it will continue to require all employees to wear masks but parents/guardians have the choice to opt-out of any mask order or requirement for their child or children.

According to a release from Collierville Schools, those who wish to opt-out their child should submit a notice by either e-mail or handwritten note to their child’s first teacher of the school day.

The notice from Collierville Schools reads as follows:

Families and Employees of Collierville Schools — This afternoon, Governor Bill Lee released Executive Order No. 84: An Order Regarding Mask Requirements in Schools. Effective immediately, Collierville Schools’ parents/guardians have the choice to opt out of any order or requirement for their child(ren) in kindergarten through twelfth grade to wear a face covering at school, on a school bus, or at school functions. Any parent/guardian who wishes to opt out their child out of the masking mandate issued by the Shelby County Health Department in Amended Health Order No. 24 should submit the notice by either e-mail or handwritten note to their child’s first teacher of the school day. Items to consider:

  • Masks are still required to be worn by all Collierville Schools employees during compensated hours (indoors), in accordance with Shelby County Health Department Health Order No. 24.
  • Governor Lee’s Executive Order No. 84 only applies to students in grades kindergarten through twelve. All adults visiting a school building are required to wear a mask during school operating hours.
  • Close contacts will now be defined as anyone within a 6-foot radius of a Covid-positive individual. This is a transition from 3 feet to 6 feet due to the mask optional requirement under Executive Order No. 84. The change from 3 feet to 6 feet is a directive from the Shelby County Health Department.

Arlington Community Schools will also continue to require all employees to wear masks but parents/guardians have the choice to opt-out of any mask order or requirement for their child or children.

ACS sent the following note to families Monday afternoon:

Late this afternoon, Governor Bill Lee signed Executive Order No. 84 giving parents the option to opt their school-aged children out of local mask mandates. As you know, ACS is currently enforcing the Shelby County Health Department’s mask mandate for schools. Though we are required to continue the SCHD mask mandate in our schools, Executive Order No. 84 makes it mandatory that we allow parents to opt out, if they so choose.

It’s incumbent upon us as a school system to give you all the details before you make your decision as a family.

It’s important to note that not wearing a mask puts you at greater risk of being identified as a close contact and being quarantined. The CDC and Shelby County Health Department define close contact in schools as less than three to six feet for more than 15 minutes while not wearing a mask. If your child is not wearing a mask and is exposed to a positive case, your child could have to quarantine for up to 14 days.

Executive Order No. 84 only pertains to school-aged children. All employees and visitors on campus must continue to wear masks while inside the building.

If you want to opt your child out of the mask mandate, you must complete the required opt out form found here. A separate form is required for each child in your family.

FOX13 has reached out to the other municipal school districts to see how they plan to respond to Gov. Lee’s executive order.

FOX13 also talked to U of M professor and former federal prosecutor Steve Mulroy about the legalities surrounding the executive order and SCS Superintendent Ray’s challenge.

Professor Mulroy said under state law, the governor can use emergency powers to overrule a decision by the local government, but there is some wiggle room.

“The statute isn’t quite as clear as trumping local authority as state authority even though the attorney general thinks it’s broad when regarding local authority,” said Mulroy.

Mulroy believes Supt. Ray is questioning the governor’s power over the Shelby County Health Department and local government. However, there is a catch.

Monday afternoon, in a statement, the health department said it would comply with Gov. Lee’s executive order.

“If the health department acknowledges the legality of the governor’s order, that does tend to weaken the position of the superintendent,” said Mulroy.

Still, Superintendent Ray shows no signs of backing down.

Mulroy said at the end of the day, if this is brought to court, a judge will need to decide.

“It would be up to someone else to sue the superintendent, to force the superintendent to comply with the Governor’s order. Now that could either be the state itself or a parent of a student,” said Mulroy.

Lakeland School System released a statement Tuesday, saying it would allow parents to opt-out of the mask mandate:

We are aware of Governor Bill Lee’s Executive Order #84 which goes into effect immediately and gives parents the right to opt-out of the Shelby County Health Department’s mask mandate. Therefore, effective immediately, parents may opt-out of the mask mandate currently in effect by emailing their child’s school-based teachers and/or administrators. For the purposes of contact tracing and determining exclusions from school for exposure to Covid-positive individuals, we will continue to apply the standard of a “close contact” being closer than three feet for more than 15 minutes for students who are masked, and closer than six feet for more than 15 minutes for those who are unmasked.

We are grateful for your cooperation and understanding as we try to navigate the various orders that impact our schools.