Tennessee mulls putting strict rules on school mask mandates

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Tennessee schools will have to jump through more hoops if they are to implement mask mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19 under legislation approved by the Republican-controlled state general assembly.

The tough new rules are part of a sweeping bill that Republicans signed into the middle of the night over the weekend in which they worked to undermine many COVID-19 preventative measures.

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Lawmakers were ready to roll back measures targeting private companies after industry groups rejected restrictions on mask requirements.

When public school advocates demanded similar clemency, lawmakers ignored their pleas that hidden assignments were necessary to protect children and teachers amid the virus outbreak and kept strict restrictions in the bill.

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The move comes as Tennessee continues to experience some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the United States after at times experiencing some of the highest numbers of cases, deaths and hospitalization rates in the country.

Tennessee is already facing federal scrutiny of how it handles the issue of masks in schools. Republican Governor Bill Lee issued an order allowing parents to choose their children from mask mandates. Since then, three judges have blocked enforcement of the order in three counties.

The legislation now passes before Lee, who has delayed promising to give the bill his signature.

Under the proposal, government entities – including public schools – would be largely prohibited from carrying out mask mandates. These entities will only be allowed to request masks if they live in a county with a 14-day average COVID-19 infection rate of at least 1,000 per 100,000 residents while the state is in a state of emergency. The state is currently well below this threshold.

Meanwhile, private businesses, health care facilities, airports and prisons were granted a last-minute exemption as notable companies such as Ford Motor Company reached out.

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