Schools open without conflict

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Parents and students protest Knox County’s court-ordered school mask mandate Tuesday. Photo submitted.

A community deeply divided over the issue of wearing masks in schools ended up peacefully expressing their differences as students returned to classes throughout Knox County on Tuesday. 

The 60,000 or so students enrolled in the Knox County Schools returned under a federal court order that required them to wear masks in order to protect disabled students from COVID-19.

The court order is viewed by some people as an infringement on their rights and an example of government overreach. Others applaud the order, saying that it’s necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus and save lives. 

Over the weekend, anti-mask activists planned out ways to protest the court order, and some of their discussions led to concerns that school operations might be disrupted. 

It turned out those concerns were largely unwarranted, however, as anti-mask activists chose to make themselves heard peacefully at schools across the community. 

“I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to our families, students and employees for making our return to school a success today,” said KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas. “It took some additional planning and preparation to reinstate our face covering policy – as required by a federal order – but our school communities navigated this transition with considerable grace and patience.”

Also Tuesday, the number of students and employees sick with the coronavirus at Ridgedale School led KCS officials to temporarily close the physical campus and move all classes online. Students were told to return to Ridgedale for in-person classes on Thursday, Oct. 7.

It requires special approval from the state this year for school districts to move schools online. Ridgedale is only the third Knox County school to do so since the current semester began in August.

The lawsuit was filed early this 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 lack of a mandatory mask policy in the school system. The parents are also seeking to block Governor Bill Lee’s controversial Executive Order 84, which allows parents to exempt their children from covering their faces. 

Last week, U.S. District Judge J. 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 Executive Order 84. 

There were no visible signs of protesters at Halls High School and Halls Middle School on Tuesday morning. Photo by Moira Charnot.

“Respectful on both sides”

It turned out that very few students took part in anti-mask protests on Tuesday.

At schools across Knox County, only 722 students defied the court order and refused to don face masks.

KCS officials said that 207 elementary, 235 middle and 280 high school students chose not to wear the facial coverings.

The tactic of accepting the consequences for refusing to comply with the order had been discussed openly on social media sites over the weekend, where it was promoted as an act of civil disobedience by parents struggling to find ways for their voices to be heard. 

At West Valley Middle School, around a dozen students were segregated from the rest of the student body in the school library after explaining they wouldn’t comply with the mask mandate.

Kellye Sammons, who is raising five children, explained that she has two daughters enrolled at West Valley — Ava Sammons and Alisha Sammons — who defied the mask policy. 

Sammons said that three of the children in her household chose to protest the mask mandate and two didn’t. She explained that she sees it as her responsibility to teach her kids how to engage politically as citizens and it was important that they each come to their own decision. 

She also thanked the school’s staff for being polite and understanding. “We even went up went up and shook hands with the principals and officers and told them ‘Thank you for being so understanding about this with us,’” she said.

Also sent to the library were Kyleigh and Jacob Winkles, the children of activist Terry Winkles.

“The kids went in at 7:30 and were sent to the library,” Winkles said. “At 8:53 the principal called and said they had to be picked up …. My daughter went in the back of the library, with permission, and cut paper for all the kids. They all made signs with them and held them up in the window.” 

He added: “With the exception of one assistant principal at West Valley, everyone was polite and respectful on both sides. The kids plan to do the same thing tomorrow.”

After they were dismissed from school with unexcused absences, the children and their parents protested with signs together outside West Valley and nearby Bluegrass Elementary School. 

“What kind of parent would I be if I didn’t stand beside them through their struggles and teach them how to fight when it seems the world is against them?” Sammons said. “The orders the judge gave were for kids with autism and tracheotomies to not wear masks. What about the other kids that suffer from other things? And some of these kids have high functioning autism that they don’t want kids at school to know about.  Now, if they come in without these masks and don’t get in trouble, everyone will know. We just don’t believe it’s fair.”

“Their voices matter”

Over the weekend, comments made by conservative activist Kevin Hill at a rally drew concerns about the protesters’ intentions when he suggested they block the entrances to schools with their vehicles. 

Sammons said that most parents involved in the anti-mask movement were disturbed by his comments and rejected potentially violent tactics out of hand. 

“That’s not what we’re about,” she said. “These kids are fighting for their rights …. It’s not about us pulling our kids out of school and putting them through this. It’s about them learning how to stand up when someone takes their rights away. Like I said, these are our future leaders of America and they need to know that their voices matter.” 

Small-scale protests like the one at West Valley took place at several other schools. At Farragut Middle School and Farragut High School, students were seen standing outside the building with signs declaring their refusal to comply with the mask mandate. At schools where visible protests were not present, such as Halls Middle School and Halls High School, students protested individually by refusing to wear a mask.

According to several posts from the anti-mask Facebook group, Knox County Parents Against Mandates, students who refused to wear masks faced much the same treatment across the system: separated into a library or auditorium and then sent home if they continued to decline. 

Members of the group have also stressed their belief that those protesting should not interact with the media or try to get their attention in any way.

Amanda Collins, founder of the pro-masking group KCS-PASS, said she’d heard reports that some schools weren’t enforcing the policy consistently but expressed relief that the day had been peaceful.

“Although we are aware that non-student demonstrators affected drop-off at a few schools and have seen the reports of inconsistent consequences for student mask refusal, we are so grateful and proud that 99% of KCS students and staff were able to adjust gracefully to this new expectation,” she said.

Ava Sammons,11, protesting Knox County’s court ordered mask mandate. Photo submitted.

According to school officials, students who refuse to don masks will continue to 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,” according to Superintendent Thomas.

Cases drop, death roll rises

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 fueled 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.

In Knox County, parental outrage over the rising number of cases earlier in the semester 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. 

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.

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 835 people in Knox County have died and 1,779 have been hospitalized out of 73,882 who have been infected, according to the county Health Department. 

At least 134 people have died in Knox County so far in the month of September alone, according to Health Department statistics. 

Despite the bleak statistics in the early days of September, the number of cases appears to be dropping.

There were only 258 active cases in the school system on Friday, including 221 students and 37 staffers out of an estimated 3,265 cases countywide, according to the KCS Covid dashboard.

The Board of Education has a work session scheduled today at 5 p.m. in the Main Assembly Room of the City-County Building. Although the mask mandate isn’t on the agenda, it will likely be discussed during the meeting.

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

Published on September 29, 2021