Federal judge stands firm on mask mandate

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Anti-mandate protesters set up shop at the intersection of North Peters Road and Kingston Pike last month. Photo submitted.

A federal judge on Monday made it clear that he’s not about to change his mind about whether Knox County Schools students must continue to wear face masks pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed on behalf of disabled children. 

In fact, none of the arguments made by attorneys for the Knox County school system have even come close to swaying U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer to scrap the temporary “mask mandate” he issued last month.

Greer shot down a motion to amend or withdraw the order filed by the school system’s attorneys, David M. Sanders and Amanda Lynn Morse of the Knox County Law Director’s office, who argued that popular resistance to the mandate made it an “undue burden,” court records show.

“(Knox County) believes it is suffering an undue burden because 700 students and 16 staff members have refused to wear masks since the Court’s mask mandate went into effect. Of the 16 staff members, 10 of them are teachers and ‘were sent home without pay.’ The Knox County Board of Education asserts that the Court’s mask mandate has therefore ‘negatively impacted the educational rights of [some] students’ and that ‘parental and student resistance . . . will continue,’” Greer wrote. 

“But the circumstances that the Knox County Board of Education has described to the Court do not appear to be meaningfully different from the circumstances that it envisioned and prepared for during last year’s voluntary mask mandate,” he said. “Perhaps anticipating that students, and maybe even teachers, would not comply with its mask mandate, it voluntarily adopted a policy under which it would send repeat offenders home. So, the record establishes that the Knox County Board of Education has already envisioned and prepared for circumstances under which some students would not remain on school grounds due to their noncompliance.”

Greer continued: “In addition, as Plaintiffs point out, only a fraction of students—less than one percent— are not currently complying with the Court’s mask mandate. The same is true for its staff members…. While the absence of these staff members might burden the Knox County Board of Education to a degree, the Court cannot conclude that it creates an undue burden—particularly in light of the fact that the Knox County Board of Education already has policies and procedures in place from last year to address acts of noncompliance. 

“Indeed, the Knox County Board of Education does not claim that the absence of such a small number of staff members has rendered it unable to carry out its daily functions. It does not claim that it has had to cancel school. It does not claim that it has even had to cancel a single class. In sum, it musters no new evidence from which the Court can conclude that the mask mandate, as a reasonable accommodation for Plaintiffs and Class Plaintiffs, is in any way causing it to grapple with a burden of undue proportions.”

The legal maneuvering has been part of a lawsuit filed last month by the parents of four disabled Knox County Schools students who argue their children’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have been violated by the system’s lack of a mandatory mask policy. 

Greer — a Republican who was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush in 2003 — handed down a preliminary injunction requiring Knox County to re-institute the mask policy it used in 2020-21 until the lawsuit is resolved.

The order has triggered both praise and derision, with parents and students opposed to the mandate have taken part in numerous protests and acts of civil disobedience that include picketing, refusing to don masks in class, or even staying home from school entirely.

Even if tempers were refusing to cool off Monday, one of the fires that have fed the controversy appeared to be dying down to a smolder. 

Weeks ago, hundreds of students and staff members were sick with COVID, forcing officials to temporarily move three schools to virtual classes. On Monday, however, the Knox County Schools COVID-19 Dashboard showed only 28 cases systemwide, including 17 students and 11 staff members.

Those numbers are almost certainly too low, however, as school officials have previously acknowledged when discussing the dashboard’s limitations. 

A nonprofit group formed by parents, KCS PASS, publishes it own dashboard using data pulled from the Tennessee Department of Health. Although KCS PASS didn’t have data for Monday, the group’s dashboard said that — as of Sunday — approximately 212 children between 5 and 18 years of age were battling active COVID infections in Knox County.

At least 892 people have died and 1,931 people have been hospitalized out of the 77,681 people who’ve been infected in Knox County since the pandemic began in early 2020. 

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on October 19, 2021.