Schools open, officials hope for calm

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Superintendent Bob Thomas (shown here at a recent meeting of the Board of Education) is reminding parents that Knox County employees aren’t responsible for the mask mandate.

Classes are supposed to resume this morning at Knox County’s 88 public schools despite growing tensions over a court-ordered mask mandate intended to protect disabled children from COVID.

School security officers and police are working with Knox County Schools to ensure the system’s 60,000 students are able to resume classes without a hitch.

“As we do every day, we will work with our law enforcement partners to ensure the safety and security of all our students and staff,” said KCS spokesperson Carly Harrington.

There shouldn’t be any security problems so long as anti-mask demonstrations are restricted to protests or parents instructing their children to not cover their faces. The concern is that some anti-mask activists may try to forcibly disrupt classes by going through with threats to, for instance, use their vehicles to block school entrances and buses.

Ironically, it was only two weeks ago that hundreds of angry pro-mask parents staged protests and “sick ins” to protest the lack of a mask mandate. After they failed to convince the Board of Education to require masks, the parents of four students with severe health problems filed a federal lawsuit claiming the lack of masks posed a threat to their children’s lives.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer — a Republican who was appointed by George W. Bush in 2003 — handed down a temporary order requiring Knox County to re-institute the mask policy it used in 2020-21 until the lawsuit is resolved. Greer also blocked the enforcement of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s Executive Order 84, which allowed parents to “opt out” of mask mandates. 

Students remained home on Monday while administrators figured out how best to implement Greer’s decision.

There were numerous other developments Monday as the situation continued to evolve, including attempts to modify and appeal Greer’s ruling. Officials announced disciplinary measures for children who refuse to wear masks when they return to school this morning. And the Knox County Health Department says the number of local COVID cases appears to be dropping.

Legal developments

Attorneys for the school system filed a request asking that Greer amend his order to allow for a slew of medical exemptions. In his ruling, Greer had said that only autistic students or those with tracheotomies would be exempted, although he also gave instructions as to how officials could apply for further exemptions.

“A list of medical conditions to be exempted is simply not a workable system and will result in a list of exemptions that are both under- and over-inclusive. A determination of if a student must be exempted from wearing a mask should be made on an individualized basis,” the schools’ attorneys, David M. Sanders and Amanda Lynn, wrote.

“For example, not every student with autism needs to be exempted from mask wearing as sensory concerns and needs will be different from student to student. Likewise, one student with asthma may need to be exempted from wearing a mask while there will be another student who only carries an inhaler as a precaution but has never used it. Under the Court’s framework, both of those students would be exempted from wearing a mask,” they said.

“Knox County has many students who were exempted under last year’s mask mandate policy for various medical conditions other than autism or tracheotomies. Examples include hearing and speech disorders, developmental delays, Down Syndrome, asthma, dermatological issues, behavioral issues, and heart conditions,” they continued.

Many of those students have IEPs or 504 plans and could sue the school system for violating their rights in much the same way the plaintiffs in the current case, they said.

A better solution, they argued, would be to allow the schools to adopt last year’s plan in its entirety, including its much more flexible exemptions policy.

Also Monday, Gov. Lee filed notice that he will be appealing Greer’s ruining to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Other parties were also planning to jump into the legal fray. Anti-mask activists on the Facebook group Knox County Parents Against Mandates (3,800 members and growing as of Monday night) discussed the possibility of somehow intervening or filing a class action lawsuit of their own.

Numerous sources have told Hard Knox Wire that anti-maskers have retained attorney Andy Fox, who’s earned the reputation as a conservative legal gadfly. 

When asked whether he’d been contacted or retained to represent the anti-mask cause, he replied with a terse email that said only: “Lots of moving parts, I’m not at liberty to make a public statement at this time.”

Schools announce punishments

In a systemwide email sent Monday afternoon, KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas pleaded with parents and students to be patient and to comply with the law. He also reminded them that Greer’s ruling wasn’t the fault of the school system’s employees. 

“As students return to school tomorrow, it is our expectation that everyone wears a face covering when indoors at our facilities or riding a school bus or shuttle. At this time, the only exemptions allowed in the federal order are for students with autism or with a tracheotomy,” he said. “I am asking that you please do all you can to help us and comply with this federal order.”

The system will use the same disciplinary measures that were used last year when students wouldn’t wear masks, he explained. 

Students who refuse to don masks will be given verbal warnings for their first and second offenses. A third offense will mean they are removed from the general population, and if they refuse a fourth time their parents will need to pick them up from school.

“Students who refuse to wear a mask will be allowed in the school building, but please know they will not be in their regular classroom. A parent/guardian may take their child home for refusing to wear a mask, but the child’s absence will be counted as unexcused,” Thomas continued.

“I believe it is more important than ever to have our students in the classroom learning and I am so proud of the work that our students and staff have been doing since school started seven weeks ago. I understand that this federal order will present some challenges, but I am grateful for your cooperation in making sure that we are in compliance and that your child is at school ready to learn,” he said. 

“Also, please remember that our teachers, administrators, and other school staff are not responsible for the face covering mandate. This is the result of a federal judge’s order, and we are all simply trying to fulfill our duties to enforce it. A little kindness and grace to our staff will go a long way in ensuring a good start to the school day,” he said. 

COVID numbers dropping

The number of COVID cases in the community is continuing to drop, leading to hopes that the violent peak experienced in the last few weeks is passing. 

Although the pandemic began early last year, Knox County’s blackest days thus far came with a massive spike in cases that began in mid-July and peaked in early September. 

According to the Knox County Health Department, the age group with the steepest increase in infections since mid-August was school-age children between 5 and 17 years old. On Aug. 11 — just as classes were starting up in Knox County Schools — there were 44 new pediatric cases. By August 30th, however, that number had swelled to at least 258 new cases a day and may have been much higher.

The COVID pandemic is now believed to have killed more Americans than the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, which took the lives of an estimated 675,000 men, women, and children. 

COVID has certainly been far deadlier in Knox County than the Spanish Flu, which killed an estimated 225 people in October 1918.

So far, 828 people in Knox County have died from COVID out of 73,714 infected since the pandemic began. As of Monday, there were 3,880 active cases.

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

Published on September 28, 2021.