Call for the U.S. Dept. of Education to Intervene TN Schools' Covid-19 Crisis

Dr. Miguel Cardona

Secretary of Education

United States Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue, SW

Washington, DC 20202

Dear Secretary Cardona:

We, the undersigned Tennesseans, write out of deep concern for the safety and well-being of our children and communities to ask that you immediately intervene in the assault on local school districts being waged by TN Gov. Bill Lee, TN House Speaker Rep. Cameron Sexton, TN State Rep. Susan Lynn and others in our state leadership.

On Monday, Aug. 16, as Covid-19 rates surged in our state and many parents sent their unprotected children into unsafe school buildings for a second week, Gov. Lee issued an Executive Order that puts them even further into harm’s way. Though he has repeatedly claimed to defer to local government powers in enacting school district policy, Gov. Lee’s EO thoroughly undermines that authority by allowing Tennessee parents to opt their students out of any school district mask mandate. In the weeks prior to the governor’s order, as the state’s Covid-19 rates rose, TN House Speaker Cameron Sexton repeatedly threatened in the local media to call for a special legislative session where he would seek to ban mask mandates and divert funding from schools forced to close due to rising infection rates.

Rep. Sexton’s statements and Gov. Lee’s EO are just the latest in a string of failures by local and state leadership to protect Tennesseans, and especially our vulnerable school children. These failures are resulting in grave consequences across our state:

  • On Aug. 19, Tennessee reached a new record (for the third day in a row) with 1,047 new Covid-19 cases in children 10 and under. That number more than tripled (from 332) since 14 days prior on Aug. 5. (TN DOH Downloadable Data Sets: Age)
  • In the two weeks between Aug. 6 and Aug. 19 (during which school started for many Tennessee children), the state recorded 14,799 new Covid-19 cases among school-aged children (5-18 y.o.). (TN DOH Downloadable Data Sets: Cases 5-18 Years Old) This two-week period accounts for 11.5% of Tennessee’s total cases among school-aged children in the entire 18-month course of the pandemic. The total 5-18 y.o. case count on Aug. 19 was more than 230% higher than 14-days prior on Aug. 5 (601).
  • Despite the dangerous misconceptions that children are not impacted by Covid-19 and the virus’s survival rate does not necessitate community and school mitigation measures, as of Aug. 19, 198 Tennessee children aged 10 and under had been hospitalized with Covid-19, and six had died. (TN DOH Downloadable Data Sets: Age Group Outcomes)
  • On Aug. 19, there were 63 Tennessee children aged 10 and under hospitalized with Covid-19, with 17 in ICUs and 6 on ventilators. (TN DOH Current COVID Hospitalizations)
  • On Aug. 5 at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, two children died from Covid-19.
  • Tragically, a Shelby Co. teacher also died from Covid-19 on Aug. 19 after contracting the virus in her classroom.

Wilson County, just outside of Nashville, provides a stark case study, characterized a school board paralyzed with inaction due to the dereliction and political intimidation exhibited by state leadership. Parents in Wilson County have pleaded with the school board for weeks to revisit its July 12 vote to make masks in schools optional, and they have been met with near-total silence from members of the board and the Director of Schools.

In the meantime, Wilson Co. children have been sent into overcrowded classrooms with very little effort toward social distancing, lax school visitor policies, pep rallies and assemblies taking place, and few teachers, staff or students choosing to mask—all against the backdrop of a community with only a 43% vaccination rate. (Tennessean Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker)

Like in many other Tennessee counties, the results have been frightening:

The evidence that Covid-19 is a danger to our communities—made only more dangerous by the lack of mitigation efforts in our schools, where vast populations of children are unvaccinated—is overwhelming. Healthcare professionals and epidemiology experts across our state have been desperately sounding the alarm, warning of a healthcare system at capacity and pleading with the public and state leadership to help slow the spread of Covid-19. Outrageously, the pleas of these American heroes continue to fall on callous, deaf ears. (Tennessee Doctors Rally to Oppose Governor’s Ban of School Mask Mandates | Tennessee Healthcare Professionals' Response to Gov. Bill Lee re: Mask Mandate in Schools | TN Doctors Demand Masks in Schools)

It appears the next step in the state of Tennessee’s experiment to test how much risk we can expose our children to may be for leadership to remove the authority of local school districts to disallow in-person attendance for students who have been exposed to Covid-19. Resistant parents in our communities have continued to send their quarantined children to school, defying school district and health department policies and putting faculty, staff, peers and the community in peril as they claim violation of their civil liberties. Wilson County’s own TN District 57 Representative Susan Lynn on Thursday sent an email to TN Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, TN Attorney General Herbert Slatery and Gov. Lee, accusing Wilson County Schools of “coercion against the unvaccinated” because the district has followed contact tracing and quarantine protocols outlined by the TN Department of Health and the CDC.

This new attempt to defy public health guidance, endanger lives and deprive children of their right to a safe and equal education is driven by an alarming deluge of vaccine and mask misinformation, much of which Rep. Lynn and other irresponsible politicians are directly accountable for spreading. Parents in our county who are refusing quarantine for their students are the same parents who have requested their children not be taught by a vaccinated teacher because the vaccinated emit harmful substances from their bodies. They are the same parents who refer in public forums to Covid-19 being their god’s way of “thinning the herd” of weak citizens who are alive only thanks to medical intervention.

Based on these factors, we have reason to believe that local school districts may soon be stripped of their authority to conduct contact tracing and issue stay-at-home orders to exposed students, thereby exponentially increasing the risk of infection for our unprotected students and for our communities and state as a whole. We implore your office to take swift action to ensure this cannot occur.

Sadly, Wilson County and Tennessee are not unique. There is a coordinated attack on medical expertise, scientific evidence and human decency being waged in local government arenas across the United States, with conspiracy theorists driven by misinformation using our children’s education as a local entry point for their dangerous, anti-government political agendas. Their insistent, treacherous intimidation of local school boards and district officials is condoned and rewarded by Tennessee state leaders like Gov. Lee, Rep. Sexton and Rep. Lynn. May the suffering of our vulnerable children weigh heavy on their conscience.

Masks—a proven effective mitigation tool for the spread of Covid-19—are not political. Medical and public health experts, who have risked their lives for 18 months fighting this pandemic, are not the enemy. Our children, and the safe, equal education they are constitutionally entitled to, are not expendable. We beg you to act on their behalf.


Gov. Bill Lee

Rep. Susan Lynn

Rep. Cameron Sexton

Dr. Penny Schwinn

Dr. Lisa Piercey

Members of the TN Senate Committee on Education

Members of the TN House Committee on Education

Members of the Wilson County School Board

Jeff Luttrell, Director of Wilson County Schools

Chuck Whitlock, Wilson County BOE Health Services Supervisor