US Department of Education opens investigation into Tennessee's opt-out mask policy

Both Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District have implemented temporary mask requirements. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Both Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District have implemented temporary mask requirements. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Both Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District have implemented temporary mask requirements. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights announced Aug. 30 it has opened investigations in five states, including Tennessee, that have issued prohibitions or blocks on local universal mask mandates.

On Aug. 16, Gov. Bill Lee announced a new executive order that would allow parents to opt out of local mask mandates instituted by local school districts.

According to the OCR, that executive order could potentially discriminate against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for COVID-19 by preventing them from accessing in-person education safely.

"The department has heard from parents from across the country–particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions–about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally," U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a release. "It's simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve. The department will fight to protect every student's right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall."

Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District have both instituted temporary mask mandates through Sept. 21. Under Lee's executive order, students can choose to opt out without the need for a religious or medical exemption. According to WCS, about 26% of all elementary school students opted out of the requirement.


The OCR has sent letters to state education leaders in Tennessee, Iowa, South Carolina, Utah and Oklahoma, all of which have either banned local mask mandates in schools or have taken other measures to block them.

The department is also monitoring Texas, Arizona, Florida and Arkansas—states that have banned mask mandates but have not had those bans go into effect amid lawsuits or other state actions.

See the full announcement from the OCR here.
By Wendy Sturges
A Houston native and graduate of St. Edward's University in Austin, Wendy Sturges has worked as a community journalist covering local government, health care, business and development since 2011. She has worked with Community Impact since 2015 as a reporter and editor and moved to Tennessee in 2019.


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