KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After months of tense school board meetings over COVID-19 safety requirements, a lawsuit over masking requirements in Knox County schools is coming to a close.
After meeting for a mediation that lasted more than six hours on Monday, the board agreed to pay the plaintiffs $145,000 for attorneys' fees. Mediation fees will be split between the Knox County Board of Education, plaintiffs and the state. Appeals and lawsuits will be dismissed, and no party will admit any wrongdoing.
Attorneys representing Governor Bill Lee also attended the meeting, as ordered by Senior U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer. In early March, he ordered mediation between all three parties.
"If you think [spending money on settling] tastes bad now ... it could get real nasty," said Chancellor Daryl Fansler, who mediated the session. "If nobody is willing to give, you're wasting time with me."
The school board agreed 7-1 on the settlement, with Betsy Henderson being the only 'no' vote. Evetty Satterfield was out of town and could not attend.
Henderson said she felt the board was being "extorted for money" and that the lawsuit was "never about health and safety." She voted no on every settlement offer proposed by her fellow board members.
The resolution came after months of dizzying conflict between Knox County Schools leaders and parents concerned about the safety of their children, particularly at the start of the school year in August 2021 as cases and hospitalizations from the COVID-19 Delta variant surged in Tennessee. Groups on social media formed either supporting or objecting to masking and other COVID-19 prevention measures in schools.
The BOE eventually voted in September 2021 not to require masks in schools weeks after Governor Bill Lee issued an executive order that allowed parents to opt their children out of school masking rules. Shortly after the vote, parents ended up suing the school district and the state to require masks in schools under the Americans with Disabilities Act, saying the school system was putting their children with high-risk health conditions at risk due to a lack of precautions.
Later that month, Judge Greer issued a written ruling requiring the school board to follow CDC guidance and reimplement a mask requirement. The ruling also blocked the governor's "opt out" order in Knox County.
Specifically, the ruling required the board to return to its 2020-21 school year COVID-19 safety plan that stated they would follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it came to masking guidance. At the time, the CDC's prevention guidelines included universal masking in schools.
That ruling led to protests and months of conflict between parents and the district's leaders.
The mask mandate in schools was eventually lifted in March 2022 after the Omicron variant's spread fell off and the CDC's COVID-19 prevention strategy shifted to focus primarily on community hospitalizations and hospital capacity rather than case spread. The CDC's updated guidance made masking a matter of personal preference in most settings, including schools, and the parents who filed the lawsuit asked Greer to update his order to reflect the new guidance.
Even though the mask mandate had been suspended, the original lawsuit was still active. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati was set to hear the mask case on May 4.
A ruling could have taken anywhere from 30 days to six months, according to Gary Dupler, Knox County's deputy law director. Even if the school board prevailed, however, Fansler cautioned they could still be responsible for the plaintiff's attorneys' fees because of a provision in the ADA.
In school board meetings after the lawsuit, COVID-19 mask requirements became a common talking point for leaders. Ethics complaints were also filed against some members after appearing at a Knox County Commission meeting to ask for permission to find outside legal counsel to help handle the lawsuit. The board later dismissed those complaints.
The decision to hire outside legal counsel was criticized after board member Betsy Henderson wrote a letter asking to hire more lawyers on the case. She previously said she was dissatisfied with the performance of the county's own law department.
Experts said that attorneys would continue working in the same way the law department had been, and critics said the move ultimately amounted to a waste of public funds.