NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Across Tennessee, hospitals are quickly reaching peak capacity and schools are sending students home or closing due to high COVID-19 case counts and staff shortages.

Over 21,000 school-aged students have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

“Clearly the burden to hospital systems is very high and the vast majority of people who are in hospitals right now fighting for their lives with COVID-19 are not vaccinated and we’re seeing younger people in the hospital,” said Dr. David Aronoff, Director of Vanderbilt’s Infectious Diseases Division.

But, despite the steep rise in cases, Governor Bill Lee is sticking with his current plan, including the recent executive order that gives parents the ability to opt their children out of mask mandates enacted by local school or health boards. 

“Fortunately, we don’t think the data shows that the Delta variant is more virulent for children, more harmful for them, but it certainly is more transmissible, and many more children are getting that,” Lee said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

And Lee isn’t apologizing for saying “kids do not get sick from COVID“ during a Fox News forum back in May, saying the context of the statement was about the severity of illnesses in children.

Health officials say last week there were 14,000 positive COVID-19 cases in Tennessee schools. Children now make up 36% of Tennessee’s reported COVID-19 cases.

“We have failed our students, failed our parents, our teachers,” said Rep. Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville).

Dixie says Governor Lee’s handling of the pandemic continues to be a failure. “This administration has sat down like a donkey on this particular issue and refuses to move even with all the data all the information that’s out there saying this is bad, this is really going to get worse and you refuse to own it.”

Around 1,300 students were taken to emergency rooms.

“Of course it matters to us, every child that gets sick, every child that’s lost, every school that has difficulty,” Lee said Wednesday.

But leaders in his own home county are calling for him to rescind the Executive Order banning masks mandates in schools.

“I’m not directly talking to those superintendents but we will — I recognize they reached out to their lawmakers to communicate with us and so we want to communicate and understand the unique situation they have,” Lee added.

The governor was also asked if he was considering giving schools more flexibility to hold virtual learning.

“We don’t have any plans to do that yet,” Lee answered.

There’s not an approved vaccine for children under 12 at this time. U.S. health officials say a vaccine for them could come in the fall or winter.