U.S. Department of Education (DOE) officials announced Monday they will investigate Tennessee and four other states that allow parents the right to opt out of a public school’s COVID-19 mask mandates.

In a press release, DOE officials said such policies could discriminate against students who are disabled and at heightened risk for severe illness.

Members of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s staff did not return The Tennessee Star’s requests for comment Monday.

Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) said via email Monday that mothers and fathers must take charge of their child’s healthcare decisions.

“If school boards want to impose mask mandates, parents should have various options for their children and, at a minimum, the ability to opt-out, as well as the ability to use their education dollars to attend a school of their choice,” Sexton said.

Lee this month issued an executive order that grants parents the right to opt their children out of a school’s COVID-19 mask mandate if a school board or a health board enacts one over a district.

Adam Kleinheider, speaking for Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) said via email Monday that Lee’s order was a compromise. That compromise, Kleinheider said, ensures the health and safety of students while giving parents the right to decide what is best for their children.

“Nothing in the order prohibits a mandate. It merely affirms the right of parents to opt out,” Kleinheider said.

“Exceptions to vaccine or mask mandates for religious and medical reasons are quite common and consistent with the executive order. Lt. Governor McNally continues to assert this is an appropriate and lawful policy and does not violate anyone’s civil rights.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in the press release that parents nationwide — especially those with disabilities and other underlying medical conditions — have contacted his department. Those parents, Cardona said, tell him that state bans on universal indoor masking endanger their children.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Cardona said.

The DOE will also investigate whether statewide prohibitions on universal indoor masking violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the press release said.

State Representative John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) told The Star by email Monday that he finds the DOE’s inclusion of the ADA as justification for requiring masks “a bit incongruous.”

“Those who suffer from respiratory conditions which are exacerbated by masks seem to have their disability ignored,” Ragan wrote.

“Similarly, those with certain cardiac conditions or claustrophobia among other conditions for which masks could be detrimental, are ignored. Are such conditions not also a ‘disability?’ I suppose the answer to that question is that they are not a ‘politically correct’ disability. It would seem, to borrow a bit of the tone from Orwell’s Animal Farm, “all disabilities are equal, but there are some more equal than others.”

DOE officials also said they are also investigating COVID-19 public school mask mandates in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah.

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Chris Butler is an investigative journalist at The Tennessee Star. Follow Chris on Facebook. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Elementary students in masks line up for temperature checks 2” by Alliance for Excellent Education. CC BY-NC 2.0.