Masks are back and with good reason as the delta COVID variant fills local hospitals and death tolls rise, including a Kingsport father and son who passed the same day holding hands. Billy Truman Smith, 55, and son Billy Matthew Smith, 39, died Aug. 25.

Fortunately, the Kingsport Board of Education reversed course within a week, declining in a work session to return a mask mandate but voting just three days later to reinstate it. Unfortunately, Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of a mask will leave some number of children at high risk, even as the delta variant targets them.

From the start of the pandemic in Tennessee, Lee refused to order a mask mandate and would not waver despite that the state quickly led much of the country in infections. Earlier this year Lee boasted, “We have never had a statewide mask mandate, and I am removing authority from local officials to issue mask requirements” in declaring the COVID crisis in Tennessee to be over, despite that it wasn’t. The same day, Tennessee was 13th in the nation in total cases, 15th in total deaths and 19th in new deaths.

Professor William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, responded that “COVID continues to be a serious public health urgency throughout the state. The virus is still spreading. It’s still putting many people into the hospital.”

Yet Lee doubled down, issuing an executive order Aug. 16 giving parents the right to opt their children out of any mask mandate as schools were returning to them due to soaring infections.

Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said the delta variant is spreading quickly in children.

“It’s everywhere,” she said, predicting children’s hospitals statewide will be full. Children age 10 and under now account for more than 10% of all new coronavirus infections, one of the highest rates of any point during the pandemic, according to Tennessee virus data. Cases among kids under 10 doubled in a week.

Southwest Virginia schools have posted 365 new cases and one death since Aug. 20. Washington County schools closed for a week because of the increasing caseload. Washington County commissioners voted to message state lawmakers, reasserting local control over schools. Commissioners requested the state legislature support local authority to make decisions, such as mask mandates, that are independent of the state.

Nearly 4,500 Tennessee health care professionals signed a letter to Lee opposing the opt-out order, and two lawsuits have been filed against it including from Shelby County, where children make up almost one-third of the total caseload.

Said Metro Nashville Public Schools Board Chair Christiane Buggs, “This is clearly a politically motivated decision and a gross abuse of the governor’s emergency powers that threatens the health and safety of students and staff across the state.”

We couldn’t agree more. It is an outrage that the governor would act against the best interests of children despite the science.

“Parents know best,” the governor said.

Fundamentally that’s true. But Gov. Lee is siding with the deniers, which puts all children at risk when some are not masked.

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