Cuts and approvals by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners capped weeks of back and forth on how federal rescue funds should be spent. 

by James Coleman —

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners has approved a resolution opposing Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order requiring school districts to allow parents and families to opt out of mask mandates in Tennessee public schools.

The adoption came during the commission’s Monday (Aug. 23) meeting.

“I think it was a direct response to Shelby County’s decision (to require masking) and it challenges our local control,” said the resolution’s sponsor, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer.

In addition to turning mask wearing into a matter of personal choice, Lee’s order permits the skirting of opt-out documentation required by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. 

Shelby County Schools Supt. Dr. Joris Ray has bucked the order by requiring masks in schools. 

However, Shelby County Health Department Director Michelle Taylor has conceded the executive order carries more heft.

Earlier in the day, commissioners met with the county attorney’s office to mull a legal challenge to the order.

The nonbinding resolution passed 7-0, with a handful of members sitting the vote out. The gesture swiftly gained traction during an off-week committee meeting.

Commissioners also backed a countywide mask mandate put into effect on Aug. 20 by the Health Department. The effort passed 10-2, with commissioners Mick Wright and Amber Mills voting against it. 

Additionally, upwards of $1.5 million was allotted to the county’s various school systems to beef up their mask stockpile. Also sponsored by Sawyer, it passed 9-0.

Finally, the commission voted 11-0 to pony up $3.6 million for Regional One Health. The money will allow the county hospital to reopen the 21 beds closed because of a national shortage of skilled health care professionals triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two more installments of $4 million will be voted on during September’s meetings. 

The Memphis City Council approved $2 million for the hospital last week to hire travel nurses or temporary workers.

Like elsewhere, masking in schools has become a hot-button issue for parents. For example, on Tuesday (Aug. 24) several parents on both sides of the argument addressed the Collierville School Board.

The school has adhered to the Aug. 16 decree. 

That event followed a gathering of parents at the Shelby County Board of Education Monday morning, with parents inquiring about virtual learning and safety. 

A Change.org petition is also making the rounds suggesting school should be held virtually, like at the start of the pandemic. As of Monday, the petition had netted more than 12,000 signatures.

The push to strengthen the county’s pandemic response comes as the Delta variant of the virus has pushed area healthcare systems to their limits. 

An estimated 96 percent of virus patients filling beds at Methodist and Baptist hospitals in Memphis are unvaccinated.

The seven-day average of daily cases registered at 744, down from the previous mark of 800. On Wednesday (August 25), the Health Department reported 522 new cases and three COVID-19-related deaths.