Last week, Tennessee’s Hamilton County School District announced that masks will be mandatory for students and staff, with one key caveat: Students whose parents complete an opt-out form will be exempt from the policy. The district was ahead of the curve; on Tuesday, Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed an executive order that extended that option to all parents in the state.
As with other schools, the mask policy has drummed up controversy among parents and students alike. But one East Hamilton High School mother’s take has gone viral: After screenshots of her email were posted on Twitter by the Tennessee Holler, the tweet garnered nearly 30,000 likes and thousands of retweets.
The email pointed out that the school board doesn’t offer an opt-out option for its dress code — which prohibits students from wearing low-cut shirts, tank tops, most skirts and dresses, athletic shorts and leggings.
“As the parent of a daughter at East Hamilton, I find the school’s dress code policy to be misogynistic and detrimental to the self-esteem of young women,” the Aug. 11 email read. “… In light of the opt-out option related to the recently announced mask mandate, I can only assume that parents are now in a position to pick and choose the school policies to which their child to be subject. ... I therefore intend to ... send my daughter to school in spaghetti straps, leggings, cut offs, and anything else she feels comfortable wearing to school.”
Mari Smith, a local parent, said she was awed by the email — and the clear hypocrisy it points to.
For Smith, what is most infuriating is “the idea that they can’t enforce kids wearing a mask that keeps other kids safe, but they are happy to send a kid home when a girl’s shorts are too short,” she said.
Growing up in Tennessee, Smith was also subjected to a strict dress code in school, and “it was a source of anguish for me,” she said. Now that she has a daughter of her own who is in third grade in the Hamilton County School District, “it’s really frustrating. It feels like they’re putting the comfort and needs of the young boys over the ability of the girls to be themselves.”
East Hamilton High School did not reply to requests for comment, nor did the Hamilton County School District.
The mother who wrote the email, Wendy, said she was galvanized to craft the message after the opt-out policy was announced. (Wendy is being identified by her first name out of privacy concerns for her family.) “I was upset because I knew tons of parents in this area would want their kids to opt out. It’s as simple as signing a form — no doctor’s note needed,” said Wendy, whose daughter is a senior at East Hamilton High School in East Brainerd, Tenn.
The primary purpose of the email was to underscore the inconsistency of the new mask policy — and the potentially grave ramifications of allowing parents and students to reject it, particularly amid the mounting covid-19 caseload in the state, Wendy said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students, staff and visitors inside school buildings wear masks at all times, but several states have banned local districts from instituting a mask mandate in their schools — arguing that parents should have the right to decide about masks for their children.
One Florida district made headlines this week after more than 5,5000 students and 300 staff were in quarantine or isolation. An emergency school board meeting has been scheduled to discuss a mask mandate, which would violate an order from Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) prohibiting schools from requiring face coverings.
Wendy is worried that most students in Hamilton County will end up attending school mask-free, considering the strong reaction from parents in Franklin, Tenn., after a school board voted to mandate masks at elementary schools on Aug. 10. A crowd of anti-mask parents congregated outside the building and shouted, “We will not comply!”
When it comes to pandemic protocol, “in our area of the country, it’s extremely polarized and divided,” Wendy said. “Something about health and safety has turned into a political issue, which it never should have been in the first place.”
While Tara Boyd — a mother of a 5-year-old boy in the Hamilton County School District — agrees that masks are not a political issue, she feels that facial coverings shouldn’t be mandated at all in schools.
“How much more are we going to take away from kids? I shouldn’t have to comply in order for my child to have a normal childhood,” Boyd said. “This isn’t about right or left, this is about my son’s right as an American, and my right as a parent, for him not to wear one.”
She is concerned that masks will distract from her son’s learning experience, and she worries about the potentially harmful effects that wearing a mask for an extended period of time might have on her child, she said.
For Boyd, “an opt-out form just added another obstacle and another stigma, and in my opinion it’s turning into medical segregation,” she said. In light of the mask policy and other covid mandates the school district has recently implemented, Boyd and her husband decided to pull their son out of school and teach him themselves at home.
But many parents, including Wendy, feel differently. After writing the email to the school and sharing it to several local Facebook groups, Wendy has been surprised at the support it’s generated: “I couldn’t believe how much it resonated with people,” she said.
Among those supporters was Taylor Lyons, another Hamilton County parent who spearheads a group called Chattanooga Moms for Social Justice. She, too, was outraged by the opt-out clause of the mask mandate, particularly because other school policies are nonnegotiable, she said. “It’s just mind-boggling that we can arbitrarily choose these silly dress code rules and then take a lifesaving health protection tool and make it optional,” she said.
The email also struck a chord with East Hamilton High School students, who said the harsh dress code — particularly for female students — has long been troubling to them.
“Someone’s finally saying what we were all thinking,” said Piper Borski, a sophomore at the school. “My shoulders have never put anyone in the hospital.”
“The dress codes are very skewed toward girls, and we shouldn’t bear the burden of overstimulated and oversexualized boys,” echoed Kiyleigh Davenport, a senior. “Our dress code makes it very difficult to find appropriate but comfortable school clothes.”
Plus, she added, “if we can opt out of the mask mandate, we should be able to opt out of the dress code.”
Since sending the email last week, Wendy has not received a response from the high school, she said.
Still, she believes she got her message across.
“We’re going to continue to advocate on this issue and push for policies that are supported by medical data and the recommendations of experts,” Wendy said. “We’ll do whatever we can to keep our children and our teachers safe.”