Group pushing for mask mandate ahead of Metro Schools first day

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The debate over masks in Metro Nashville classrooms continues with less than a week until the first day of school.

Last month, the Metro School Board decided masks would be optional for all staff and students heading into the 2021-2022 school year. But members of Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) are now making a last-minute push for a mask mandate as COVID-19 cases rise.

Beverly Whalen-Schmeller is an MNEA member and MNPS psychologist who says reinstating a mask mandate is the responsible thing to do.

“Anything we can do to keep children safe is important and we’d be negligent if we didn’t take every step we could,” Whalen-Schmeller said. “If being a little bit uncomfortable helps save the lives of children, I’m all for being a little bit uncomfortable.”

MNEA Vice President, Paula Pendergrass, points out that thousands of MNPS students are too young to get vaccinated and should be required to mask up for protection.

“Currently vaccine rates have remained low. Especially in Tennessee. And people 12 and under still do not have access to the vaccine. Therefore, educators like myself are concerned about masks not being a priority,” Pendergrass said.

MNEA surveyed 756 Metro teachers and staff members this week and found that almost 66 percent of them are in favor of a mask requirement. But other teachers and parents argue wearing a mask should remain an individual choice.

Amy Pate has three children attending MNPS schools this fall and thinks that mask wearing should remain optional.

“It’s easy to say that masks are easy. But I think when you’re speaking of hearing impaired, or emerging readers, differently abled learners, students with sensory issues—it’s really hard for them to tolerate and learn in a mask,” Pate said.

On Monday, Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton said he’d ask Governor Bill Lee to call a special legislative session if school districts begin mandating their students wear masks.

Two days later, the Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle released a statement recommending the board adopts a universal mask policy for the start of the school year. Dr. Battle’s recommendation came just hours after Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced a new mask mandate in all Metro government buildings.

“It’s an easy way to score cheap political points by the mayor and by the council members. It seems like our kids are caught in a battle between the Governor and the Mayor and I think that’s wrong,” Pate said.

But MNEA members insist a mask mandate is the best way to protect everyone heading into the school year.

“If there’s no mask mandate, I’m afraid that children under the age of 12 who cannot be vaccinated are going to get very sick and some will die,” Whalen-Schmeller said.

The Metro School Board is meeting Thursday morning at 11 a.m. to discuss their mask policy.

At least one board member, Fran Bush, tells News 2 she will vote against a mandate and says the board should stick to their original plan to keep masks optional. Bush also says board members received threats on Wednesday afternoon ahead of their mask policy discussion.

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