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Voucher threat shows GOPers care more about ideology than kids dying from COVID-19 | Weathersbee

First, Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers singled out Shelby and Davidson counties for a school voucher experiment that a Nashville judge declared unconstitutional last year – and a state appeals court agreed.

Now, one of those lawmakers wants to weaponize a pandemic in that war. No matter that the state’s most vulnerable children could wind up as casualties.

During a recent visit to Memphis, state House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said that he was considering asking Gov. Bill Lee to call a special session to ban school mask mandates in Tennessee.

If that fails, he's eyeing following Florida – a state now known more for COVID-19 and craziness than citrus and sunshine – in allowing parents who oppose masks to use public money to send their children to voucher schools.

Coincidentally, the Shelby and Davidson county school districts are among those that have mandated masks. They are also Tennessee’s largest school districts; the only two districts targeted in the voucher law and districts where Republicans have long salivated over the prospect of shifting public dollars into the realm of private experimentation.

Not to be outdone by an outsider when it comes to penalizing mostly-Black Shelby County for not knowing its place, Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, have endorsed Sexton's special session, mask opt-out for voucher idea.


Yet as Sexton, White and Kelsey are working to penalize school districts for keeping children safe, their Republican counterpart in Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, is calling on his state lawmakers to overturn the state law which bans districts from requiring masks.

In other words, Hutchinson is paying attention to the science and the suffering. Meanwhile, Sexton, White and Kelsey are using parental rights as cover to advance a political goal.

Yet while this session may not become a reality, what these actions reveal is that in Tennessee, some Republicans care more about imposing an ideological agenda at the expense of protecting children from deadly pathogens.

And for children in Shelby County, that callousness could kill.

That's because many children here struggle with conditions like obesity and asthma; comorbidities that make them especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 and the deadly delta variant.

In Shelby County, around 39 percent of children are obese, according to a 2019 community health needs assessment by Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare.

Asthma also stalks children here; A 2019 report by the Tennessee health department, found that between 2012 and 2016, Shelby County led the state in hospital emergency department visits for asthma among youths aged 1 to 17.

Meaning that sending Shelby County children to school without masks is akin to piling them into vans without seatbelts. Meaning that a collision with COVID-19, like a collision with a vehicle, could kill them just as dead.

Or leave them battling more illnesses.

"We've got more kids that are coming in with asthma and with underlying conditions have come in really sick on admission," said Dr. Nick Hysmith, medical director of infection prevention at LeBonheur Children's Hospital.

"If we have a community that has a lot of underlying medical conditions, like Memphis, and we put them [children] in a setting in which they don't get masks, then we know they're going to get sick..

"Some of them are going to get a lot sicker than others, and I'm afraid some of them will die."

Two already have.

COVID-19 recently claimed one child at LeBonheur, and another who was on her way there. That child was 11-year-old Jordyn Franklin, a West Memphis, Arkansas, girl who suffered from morbid obesity and Type II diabetes.

State Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the delta variant will probably sicken so many children that they will fill pediatric units in the state.

With only 37 percent of Shelby County's eligible population being fully vaccinated, combined with children who are too young to be vaccinated, it's easy to see how the variant can spread.

Children younger than 11 cannot be vaccinated. It's also another reason why wearing masks in school is especially important, Hysmith said.

"Those kids with comorbidities are at an even higher risk of getting severely ill, and that is going to be the reality if masks are taken away, especially in this population where we don't have the ability to vaccine many children, because they're too young," he said.

Ideally, lawmakers like Sexton should be an ally of those who want to protect children from a pandemic; who want to see them fill schools and not pediatric intensive care units.

But, sadly, Sexton, like Lee and many other GOP politicians, would rather egg on those parents and constituents in their embrace of misinformation and government mistrust than to provide them with real leadership.

Also, while it's commendable that Shelby County Schools are pushing ahead with the mask mandate, it's also scary that tailoring rules to the needs and vulnerabilities of people here seems to earn the contempt of GOP lawmakers.

This was blatantly on display back in January, when those lawmakers threatened to strip the school district of funding if it didn't return to in-person learning.

That was a time in which Shelby County led the state in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

Yet now that everyone has learned more about the effectiveness of masks in combatting the delta variant, children can safely return to in-person learning, Hysmith said.

Which is what lawmakers like Sexton said they wanted.

Except now, Sexton sees a way to score ideological points by threatening to offer vouchers to entice Shelby County students leave their schools - if the schools require them to protect themselves and others from being sickened or killed by a deadly variant.

That's insane.

"In-school and in-person is the best way to learn, and we have a way to do it now because of what we've learned - and masking is a huge part of that," Hysmith said.

"What I can't wrap my head around is that if we don't have masks, we're going to have kids who are going to get really sick, and kids who are going to die...

"...Last year we didn't have the tools that we needed [to fight COVID-19]. Now we have the tools. We had masks last year, but we didn't have vaccines and testing was inadequate.

"Now we have testing everywhere, vaccines are available for almost everyone, and we know that masks work. We have virtually everything we need to stop it, but now people don't want to do it.

"It's very frustrating."

Even more frustrating is when political leaders see a deadly pandemic as an opportunity to use vulnerable children to push an ideology.

Especially when they should be pushing to stop the pandemic from killing them.

Tonyaa Weathersbee can be reached at and you can follow her on Twitter: @tonyaajw

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