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AP

Tennessee gov extends school mask opt-outs blocked by judges

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DICKSON, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday that he will extend an executive order that lets families opt their children out of school mask mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19, despite federal court rulings that have blocked the policy in three counties.

Lee told reporters he will extend the order, which was set to expire on Oct. 5, by 30 days. The Republican said he was "incredibly disappointed" by the federal judges ruling against the policy, accusing them of trying "to legislate from the bench."

"We'll be extending and making provision for that because I believe that parents should be the ones to decide what is best for their children," Lee said.

To date, federal judges have blocked the order from being implemented in Knox, Shelby and Williamson counties. Separately, the district attorney in Nashville has pledged not to prosecute teachers or school officials for enforcing their mask requirements without the governor's new required leniency.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has since said would appeal those decisions in Shelby and Knox counties. While his office did not disclose why he only chose those counties, the judge overseeing the Williamson County case has only temporarily blocked Lee's order from being enforced.

All three lawsuits claimed that Lee's order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits the exclusion of students with disabilities from public educational programs and activities. The complaints have largely been filed by families who have children with severe medical conditions and are too young to qualify for COVID-19 vaccines.

Children with certain disabilities are more vulnerable to serious illness or death if they get COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.

U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman was the first to indefinitely block Lee's order earlier this month in Shelby County — Tennessee's most populous region, which includes Memphis. Shelby County had already adopted school mask requirements, but some feared Lee's order would undermine the mandate.

In his preliminary injunction, Lipman determined the evidence showed that the order prevented children with health problems from safely going to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

Shortly after, U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer not only paused Lee's order from being enforced in Knox County — which encompasses Knoxville — but also ordered the school district implement a mask mandate after officials declined to adopt one at the beginning of the school year.

A third judge then blocked the ruling in Williamson County, an affluent area just south of Nashville.

Meanwhile, the summer spike in new cases in Tennessee has begun cooling off. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has decreased by 3,928, a drop of 52.9%, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Tennessee ranks ninth among states for new cases per capita in the past 14 days.

Lee issued the order in August after a handful of Republican lawmakers demanded the governor call a special session so the GOP-dominated General Assembly could halt mask mandates in schools and other COVID-19 safety measures.

Later that month, the U.S. Education Department opened civil rights investigations into five Republican-led states, including Tennessee, that have banned or limited mask requirements in schools, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

Masks are a key virus-prevention tool that are most effective when worn by a large number of people, public health experts say. The CDC has again recommended them for schools, saying they don't pose health risks for children older than toddler age.

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Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report from Nashville.

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