KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On Friday, Knox County Schools filed a motion to stop a mask mandate while an appeal goes through the courts, following a federal judge's decision to require masks at school so students with disabilities could attend safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the motion, KCS cited protests organized on a social media page, Knox County Parents Against Mandates, as reasons the district could be harmed if the mandate continues.
During those protests, they said students at Farragut schools walked past adults who called them "sheep" and allegedly tried to stop them from entering the building. KCS attorneys also said they expected "community resistance" to the mandate to continue.
If it continues, they say students who are sent home for choosing not to wear a mask as part of the protests would not be able to get a free public education.
"The only way to enforce the 'reasonable accommodation' required by the Court is to directly impact the rights of other students to an education," they said in the motion.
On Sept. 28 when KCS implemented the mandate, officials said around 700 students refused to wear a mask to school and were isolated in large rooms until parents picked them up. Around 200 of them were elementary school students. There were also 16 staff members, including 10 teachers, who were sent home without pay that day.
"Thus, in one day, this Court’s order has negatively impacted the educational rights of hundreds of students," they say in the motion.
On Sept. 29, they said 578 students refused to wear a mask and were sent home. The next day, officials said around 500 students refused to wear masks.
Attorneys also said that the mask mandate led to several teachers and faculty leaving their jobs. Generally, they said that Knox County Schools has 82 vacant teaching positions, and only 20% of the usual pool of substitute teachers have been available this year.
On Sept. 30, they said that they needed 636 substitute teachers or student support staff, but could only fill 345 of those positions.
Knox County Schools also said that they adopted some recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of COVID-19 such as social distancing, intense cleaning protocols and providing hand sanitizers. They said it would be enough to keep schools safe.
However, the CDC has previously recommended masks in schools while KCS kept them optional.
Attorneys also said that plaintiffs also have the option of attending a virtual academy provided by the Knox County Schools. The motion does not mention an earlier deadline in April in which parents were told to decide whether to send students to class in person or to virtual learning.
The motion also does not discuss any measures KCS took to protect students and staff during the protests and "community resistance."
On Friday, parents suing the Knox County Board of Education over lack of a school mask mandate say they're also not adamantly opposed to expanding the kinds of people who could be spared having to wear a mask.
But, they said they think a treating doctor should weigh in on any exemption.