Knox students, staff to wear masks Monday

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As shown in this picture, angry parents have been protesting the Knox County Schools’ lack of a mandatory masking policy for several weeks to no avail. Some parents, however, have chosen to take their arguments to federal court. On Friday, they won a significant victory when a federal judge ordered that Knox County schools must now operate under a mask mandate. Photo by Moira Charnot.

 Come Monday, make them wear masks — or else.

That was the unequivocal message from a federal judge to Knox County Schools officials as part of a ruling made Friday in a lawsuit pitting disabled students against the Board of Education and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. 

U.S. District Court Judge J. Ronnie Greer ordered KCS officials to “enforce with immediate effect the mask mandate that was in place in all Knox County schools during the 2020-2021 school year, as a reasonable accommodation,” court records show. 

Greer also issued a preliminary injunction that prevents both the Board of Education and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee from enforcing anti-mask mandate policies in Knox County such as Lee’s controversial Executive Order 84, which allowed parents to exempt their children from covering their faces. 

Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas told the community in a Friday afternoon email to parents, students and employees that he had no choice but to comply with the judge’s order.

“In conjunction with the Knox County Law Department, the district is reviewing the judge’s order and working to understand its implications. However, we do want to provide our families, students and employees with preliminary guidance in preparation for next week,” Thomas said.

“Beginning Monday, Sept. 27, all our students, employees, and visitors will be required to wear a face covering when indoors at one of our facilities or riding a school bus or shuttle, until further notice,” he continued. “Any individual with autism or with a tracheotomy is exempt; however, parents who have students with autism who can wear a face covering are encouraged to do so. Others with a documented medical condition may be exempted from this policy pending court approval.” 

He added: “We recognize that this is a sensitive topic and that there are a wide variety of strongly held feelings about COVID-19 mitigation measures. At the same time, I want to make very clear that we are required to implement this order.”

Only two members of the Board of Education returned phone calls and emails from Hard Knox Wire on Friday. Daniel Watson and Jennifer Owen both said they couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

Board member Betsy Henderson, who represents the 6th District, criticized Greer’s ruling in a post on her Facebook page. 

“Judge Greer’s mask mandate is a clear case of judicial overreach,” Henderson said. “The school board is responsible for the governance of Knox County Schools — not the federal government. I will always stand up for the rights of parents to make decisions which are in the best interest of their children.”

Gov. Lee’s office couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

The lawsuit was filed Sept. 2 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 lack of a mandatory mask policy in the school system. 

The parents are asking Greer to order the schools “to enforce a mask mandate” and block Lee’s controversial Executive Order 84, which allows parents to exempt their children from covering their faces. 

Greer held a hearing last week in which he heard arguments about the plaintiffs’ requests for a preliminary injunction that would force a temporary mask mandate on the school system until the lawsuit is resolved. 

With the injunction now in place, the “case will now proceed on the merits,” according to Greer.

Federal judges in Memphis and Nashville have also ruled against Lee’s Executive Order 84, which expires Oct. 5.

The lawsuit is the latest move in an increasingly bitter battle over how schools should respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is now impacting a third academic year. The latest disputes have been triggered by the Delta variant, which has spread like wildfire through school districts throughout the Southeast U.S. where conservatives have succeeded in blocking anti-COVID measures like mask requirements. 

Gov. Lee’s administration has ruled that local districts won’t be allowed to take the kinds of aggressive precautions taken in the 2019-20 and 2020-2021 school years to prevent the spread of COVID. For instance, school districts aren’t allowed to move to online learning no matter how severe an outbreak becomes — only individual classrooms or schools can do so, and only after receiving a waiver from the state. 

Lee has also tried to render moot any attempts by local districts to impose mandatory masking by issuing Executive Order No. 84, which permits parents to exempt their children from such policies.

In Knox County, parental outrage over the number of cases led to protests, a “Sick Out” where parents kept their kids home from school, and other efforts to pressure the Board of Education to take more aggressive steps. They failed, however, to convince the Board to make the desired changes at a special called meeting on Sept. 1.

The lawsuit was filed the following day. 

The plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, which means they’re asking Greer to force the defendants to comply with their demands rather than seeking a sum of money beyond attorneys’ fees and court costs. 

The attorneys for the families, Justin S. Gilbert and Jessica F. Salonus, are basing their legal strategy on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires schools to make “reasonable modifications” when necessary to ensure that students with disabilities receive their legally guaranteed education, court records show.

They are asking Judge Greer to order the schools “to enforce a mask mandate” and block Executive Order 84. The attorneys are also asking that the case be granted class action status. 

The children are identified only by their initials in public court documents to protect their privacy. They are each classified as disabled due to health conditions such as chronic lung disease, autoimmune disease, brain malformation and heart disease, according to court records.

While children are usually less vulnerable than adults to severe illness or death caused by COVID, children with certain health problems — such as those listed in the lawsuit — are at a much higher risk of developing life-threatening complications, according to health authorities.

“Due to their disabilities, they all experience a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, with greater consequences. However, the state and school district can seriously mitigate these risks through community masking practices and social distancing,” the lawsuit states.

“Why masks? Because the cloth layer blocks the droplets from releasing into the environment, along with the microorganisms these particles carry. To be more specific, masks block the large droplets (‘20-30 microns and up’) as well as finer droplets, too,” according to court documents.

The lawsuit goes on to describe a child in Maryville who was placed on a ventilator last month “with fluid in her lungs, unable to communicate with her parent, her parent being confronted with questions about whether to resuscitate.” 

The lawsuit argues that masking is an “entirely reasonable modification” and points out that even Gov. Lee has been quoted as saying, “If you want to protect your kid from the virus or from quarantine, the best way to do that is to have your kid in school with a mask.”

The lawsuit then goes on to cite some of the health authorities who have recommended universal masking, such as Duke University, the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center.

 “Since school reopened in 2021, in Knox County, COVID-19 infections among school aged children have increased substantially. As of September 2, 2021, Knox County schools reported 750 known and active cases among students and an additional 140 cases among staff members. And as of September 1, 2021, one out of every five students was not even attending school, with 193 new active cases reported in a single day,” court records say.

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, at least 806 people in Knox County have died and 1,747 have been hospitalized out of 73,054 who have been infected, according to the county health department. 

At least 105 people have died in Knox County so far in the month of September, according to Health Department statistics. 

Unlike last year, there remains no official way to tell how many students and staff members are infected with COVID on a school-to-school basis.

There were 330 active cases in the school system on Friday, including 297 students and 33 staffers out of an estimated 4,082 cases countywide, according to the KCS Covid dashboard. 

The dashboard operated by KCS-PASS, a volunteer group advocating for safe schools, said Friday there were 836 COVID cases among school age Knox County children. 

The Board of Education has a work session scheduled for 5 p.m. Sept. 29 in the Main Assembly Room of the City-County Building. 

Moira Charnot contributed to this article.

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

Published on September 25, 2021.