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Gov. Lee expected to sign bill changing COVID-19 restrictions in Tennessee schools

FILE - A student raises his hand in class at iPrep Academy on the first day of school, Monday,...
FILE - A student raises his hand in class at iPrep Academy on the first day of school, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Miami.(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Published: Nov. 10, 2021 at 5:12 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 11, 2021 at 6:03 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee Governor Bill Lee said he will sign a sweeping COVID-19 bill into law. That means the current Shelby County mask mandate in schools is seeing its final days.

On Wednesday, Lee said he will sign the bill likely before Friday.

The bill outlaws things like vaccine passports and district-wide mask mandates in public schools.

Since August, the Shelby County Health Department has made masking by students and staff mandatory even as a mask mandate for the general public was lifted.

For now, the health department’s guidance to schools is to keep masking.

“There is still a universal mask requirement in our K-12 schools, daycares and pre-ks, and until the bill goes into effect the guidance will not change,” SCHD Director Dr. Michelle Taylor said.

It’s likely a bill outlawing district-wide mask mandates in public schools in most cases will go into effect as early as the end of the week. On Wednesday Millington Municipal Schools announced masks are now optional because Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill, but Lee has not signed it yet.

“I anticipate I’m going to sign that bill,” Lee said.

Millington’s Director of Schools James Griffin said it was a premature announcement, and they will continue to follow the county mandate until the COVID-19 omnibus bill is in effect. The announcement had been taken off social media by Wednesday afternoon.

Gov. Lee said he wants to work through some of the bill’s provisions, but agrees with the core of the bill, which includes items like prohibiting mandated masking in schools and vaccination requirements at work.

“I agree with the direction and the intent of the primary pieces of that legislation,” Lee said.

Anticipating the bill will soon do away with school mask mandates, Taylor is urging parents to get their students vaccinated.

“We are encouraging parents to really consider to take advantage of the fact the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for ages five to 11,” Dr. Taylor said.

So far, more than 1,100 children 5 to 11-year-olds in Shelby County have been vaccinated since Thursday.

As more become eligible for the vaccine, SCHD is once again taking over leadership of the shot in the county.

Following a state and federal investigation into the handling of the COVID-19 vaccine at the health department nearly 10 months ago, come next month the SCHD once again take over vaccine administration for the county.

“As of now we know we’re doing much better,” Dr. Taylor said of the level of COVID-19 cases in Shelby County.

Dr. Taylor said COVID-19 trends are still projecting downward though some of the pandemic indicators have increased slightly week over week.

Currently, we’re averaging about 86 cases recorded a day. Last week it was 84, and the reproduction rate is now at .9%, which is up slightly from last week’s .83%.

“We really have reached a plateau of course we’re still monitoring the cases daily to make sure we’re not seeing any upticks or rapid rise in cases,” Dr. Taylor said.

Dr. Taylor and the City of Memphis see it as the right time for SCHD to take the reigns of the vaccination efforts again.

“This has been a transition that has been in the making for quite a while and we are honored to be taking the lead again,” Dr. Taylor said.

When the health department takes over on Dec. 1, they will only operate the public vaccination sites for people 12 and up at Germantown Baptist Church and Southwest Tennessee Community College in Whitehaven.

Children 5 to 11 will not be able to get vaccines at the drive-up locations. However, SCHD is offering the vaccine to families who choose it for the 5 to 11-year-olds at its location at 814 Jefferson Avenue.

More than a million vaccine doses have been administered in Shelby County, with 46% of the population fully vaccinated.

“To date, across the county, according to state data, 1,152 children have been vaccinated in that 5 to 11 age group,” Dr. Taylor said.

For more vaccination locations click here.

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