Feds open civil rights probe of Lee masks order – Tennessee Lookout

The federal government on Monday opened a civil rights investigation under Governor Bill Lee’s executive order on masks and threatens to take action against Tennessee if it finds a violation of US law.

The Department of Education’s Civil Rights Bureau told Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn that it has opened a “targeted investigation” into whether the state is preventing school districts from “considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities” because parents allow it to opt out of mask requirements to contain COVID-19. Tennessee is reportedly one of five states whose governor’s orders are under investigation.

“OCR’s investigation will focus on whether, given this policy, students with disabilities who are at increased risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to personal education in violation of federal law,” it said in the letter.

The letter indicates that the nation saw a “significant increase” in COVID-19 cases early in the school year, mostly in school-age children.

The governor’s office said Monday it had received the letter and would review it.

DOE Tennessee

Lee recently averted a special session of the General Assembly by enacting an executive order that allows parents to opt out of masking duties from local school authorities.

Numerous school districts resisted the order, including Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and Hamilton County Schools, as well as rural counties such as Henry County and Hancock Counties. Williamson County School Board passed a mask mandate but gave parents the option to send their children to school without masks.

“Reg. Bill Lee’s administration should suspend its order to negate local masking rules in schools immediately pending this state investigation, “said Senator Raumesh Akbari, chairman of the Senate Democratic Committee. “All of our students, including those with health problems, deserve access to safe learning conditions.”

The federal investigation comes just days after Memphis law firm Donati Law filed a class action lawsuit alleging the governor’s order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit is filed on behalf of two families in Shelby County whose children are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally supported Lee’s order, and the lieutenant governor, expressing dismay at the school systems’ refusal to obey him, said such a move could force the legislature to a special session.

Senator Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis: Lee Administration should suspend Executive Order 84 immediately. (Photo: John Partipilo)

McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider pointed out that the governor’s order was a compromise that should allow school authorities to “ensure” the health and safety of students while recognizing the rights of parents.

“Nothing in the order prohibits a mandate. It only reaffirms the parents’ right to unsubscribe. Exceptions to vaccination or mask requirements for religious and medical reasons are quite common and are in line with the implementing regulation. Lt. Gov. McNally continues to claim that this is a fair and lawful policy and that it does not violate anyone’s civil rights, “Kleinheider said in a statement.

Sexton had threatened school systems across the state, saying he would ask the governor to call a special session in case a system closed buildings, required masks, or separated unvaccinated students.

When asked about the investigation, Sexton spokesman Doug Kufner replied that the spokesman had “consistently” said that parents should monitor health decisions for their children.

“If school authorities want to impose masking requirements, parents should have various options for their children and at least have the option to log out and use their education funds to attend a school of their choice,” said Kufner called.

Previously, Sexton said he would consider pushing legislation that would allow parents to use coupons to send their children to private schools when districts close buildings. In that case, Kufner said Sexton could back a move to allow coupons for parents whose school districts require masks.

As school districts shut down buildings and quarantine hundreds of students as COVID-19 and the Delta variant hit the state and affect thousands of children, Commissioner Schwinn posted a letter to the school system directors on Aug. 27 saying a Process is set up for the districts to offer virtual learning.

Lawmakers stopped virtual learning earlier this year to force school districts to bring students back to the classrooms.

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