Following an executive order from Gov. Bill Lee, Williamson County Schools officials have announced that face masks will be effectively optional on campus for all grade levels.

The order from Lee issued Aug. 16 allows for parents of students to opt out of local mask mandates issued by school districts, making all district mandates essentially optional.

WCS Superintendent Jason Golden said during the board of education's Aug. 16 meeting that the district will be working to provide information about the change to families throughout the district.

"[The mask requirement] has now shifted to optional, and I want to make sure that we're very clear on that, and we will be communicating that with our families," Golden said.

The district has posted a form on its website for parents to fill out. The form will be returned to a student's individual school, according to the district.

As a result of the order, officials expect the number of students opting out of the district's mask policy to increase. District policy already allows students to opt out of wearing masks by filing a health or religious exemption with their individual schools. Golden said the number of exemptions so far in the school year has totaled approximately 3,600, or about 20% of the total elementary student population. Students with an existing exemption will not be required to file a new one.

While the order allows for students to opt out, staff and visitors to elementary school campuses will still be required to wear masks through at least Sept. 21 when the mask requirement expires, according to the district.

As of Aug. 16, Williamson County had more than 1,500 active COVID-19 cases. Golden said the district will resume posting the number of weekly positive COVID-19 cases on the district's website to help the community see which schools have high levels of spread and quarantines.

Golden said district staff will be monitoring rates of student absenteeism to determine if an individual campus needs to close. Similar to last year, WCS plans to close individual campuses if the spread of COVID-19 becomes too high; Golden said staff typically become concerned if attendance rates drop below 90%.

Should a campus need to close, the district will not be allowed to switch to remote learning as the state department of education no longer allows it to do so, meaning the district will have to use one of its 10 allotted inclement weather days, according to the district.

Golden said the district will continue to strongly encourage masks for students and staff.

"I want you to know that there's a renewed effort for us to make sure that we do everything to keep our students on campus," Golden said.