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Judge orders Knox County parents, school board, governor to try mediation over mask dispute

Senior U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer put down his order Monday.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Parents who sued to enforce a mask policy in Knox County Schools and Gov. Bill Lee and the Knox County Board of Education are being ordered to try mediation to resolve the dispute.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer put down an order Monday directing the parties to begin mediation in the coming weeks.

They've got 60 days to attend a mediation conference. Within seven days of that meeting, the mediator must file a report to the judge, Greer wrote.

In the meantime, the ongoing lawsuit by parents filed in September is "stayed" pending mediation talks, Greer directed.

The four sets of parents filed suit in September in federal court in Knoxville to force the Board of Education to require children to wear a mask. The parents argued their children have health problems that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 effects.

They argued that federal law, specifically the Americans With Disabilities Act, ensures that accommodations must be made to protect the children.

Greer agreed last fall, ordering the mandate for Knox County public school children and staff.

School board members have debated for many months what to do about masks. Some have wanted to keep them; some have argued it's time to stop forcing children to wear them.

Virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been falling in recent days and weeks.

The school board last month expressed confidence with the Knox County Law Director's Office, which is defending the board in the lawsuit. But several members have said they think the board should be allowed to hire outside counsel, and they urged Knox County Commission to let them do that.

On Monday night, the school board is expected to hold a workshop. They may discuss hiring outside counsel. County Commission has greenlighted the board hiring additional counsel -- with the Law Director's Office retaining control over the case.

Last week, a group of Knox County students asked to be included as defendants in the ongoing mask lawsuit.

They said that the government attorneys arguing in the case are not "situated to advocate for [their] interests," partially because those attorneys have not argued that masks are ineffective at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The motion goes on to say that the students would argue that masks are ineffective at preventing the spread of COVID-19, despite repeated studies from health experts across the world showing that universal masking reduced the chance for at-risk people to develop severe and deadly illness from the coronavirus.

The group of parents who sued KCS over an absence of universal masking in public schools also filed a motion last week requesting the judge include new national health guidelines that would allow the current mask mandate in schools to be suspended soon, in anticipation of the CDC's guidelines changing for Knox County.

The CDC on Thursday downgraded Knox County to a "medium" community risk level. As part of this designation, they said people generally can stop wearing masks inside of public places. However, people who are at high-risk for COVID-19 should speak to their healthcare providers about ways to stay safe, which can include wearing masks.

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