Lee Sexton McNally

Gov. Bill Lee, flanked by House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally, addresses the media after a January special legislative session

Tennessee House Republicans have formally asked GOP Gov. Bill Lee to call a special session for the purpose of cracking down on local school boards and other agencies that are instituting new mask and other COVID-19 rules as the virus continues a late-summer rising tide.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton had previously said he wanted a special session if local school boards mandated masks at schools, and he followed through with a letter to Lee on Wednesday. A representative for Lee said he is considering the request.

Either Lee can call a special session or the legislature can do it themselves, but only with the signatures of two-thirds of the members of both the House and the Senate. That may be simple in the GOP-dominated House, but the Senate, also controlled by Republicans, is led by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who has said he believes local school boards should control local mask rules.

In response to Sexton's request, McNally reiterated his past statements, saying that he cared more about keeping kids in classrooms than about whether they had to wear masks.

“Amid all the controversy regarding masks, vaccine passports and the like, we appear to have lost sight of the one thing that truly matters: keeping children in the classroom so they can learn," McNally said Wednesday. "I remain convinced that locally elected school boards and private school organizations know how best to manage operations during this pandemic so that students can remain healthy, learning and, most importantly, in the classroom. If a special session is called, I will work with Governor Lee, Speaker Sexton and all my colleagues to keep this our mission focus. Children learn best in a classroom. And they can only do that if they remain healthy, vibrant and safe.”

Sexton has also floated the possibility of a school voucher program for families whose students attend schools with mask or vaccine requirements.

“We believe there is a need to curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials, confirm a parent’s right to make decisions that impact the mental and physical health of their children, provide support and direction to schools to ensure educators are properly compensated for COVID-19 leave, and protect all Tennesseans from misdirected mandates designed to limit their ability to make their own decisions,” the House Republicans wrote. “The six independent health boards, along with unelected officials, have made and will continue to make decisions that stifle access to educational opportunities for our children and infringe on their freedoms and liberty. Some of these mandates have been accompanied by threats of reckless endangerment, school closure, and segregating students based on vaccination status.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Republicans in state government have trained most of their restriction-focused ire at officials in the more liberal larger cities in the state, especially Nashville and Memphis. School leaders in both districts have recently instituted mask mandates for the new school year.

But more conservative areas have also been doing so as case numbers have risen dramatically in recent weeks. Williamson County, home to Lee and other prominent Republicans, instituted such a mask mandate on Tuesday after a contentious public hearing, and conservative Henry County is doing the same.

Lee has not said whether he will call a special session or whether he would support legislation to strip local school boards of the ability to institute such rules, but he said earlier this week that under current law they have the ability to do so.

The vast majority of local scientists and doctors say that masking helps prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly among children under 12 who are not yet able to get the existing vaccines.

“We are, in our community, at high risk of virus transmission,” Dr. Stephen Patrick, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Child Health Policy, told the Scene earlier this month. “We’re seeing the Delta variant that is far more transmissible, and we’ve seen outbreaks throughout the country involving children. The best evidence is that ... kids [should] be wearing masks at school, as well as teachers.”

Public and private colleges around the state have also in recent weeks begun adding mask rules.

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