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Knox Co. Schools passes motion rejecting plaintiff requests to guarantee people wear masks in schools

Board member Patti Bounds brought a motion to refuse to comply with a request from plaintiffs to add policies guaranteeing people wear masks in schools.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A court filing claimed that teachers, students, and administrators across Knox County Schools were violating the district's mask mandate on Feb. 4.

They listed specific examples including students wearing mesh or lace masks, sporting events with mask-less students in the stands, and instances when bus drivers and administrators chose not to wear the face coverings. 

It concludes with the plaintiffs requesting a monitor and/or compliance plan and for Knox County to "show cause on the issue of contempt." 

Motion to Reject Plaintiff Requests

The board met Wednesday to discuss the filing, and board member Patti Bounds immediately asked for an outright rejection of any agreement with the plaintiffs. However, that motion was delayed for a lengthy discussion about the requests and the board's response.

The motion consisted of three parts listed below:

  • The board will not agree to allow 'neutral monitors' in schools to ensure students and teachers wear masks
  • The board will not agree to submit to a three-person compliance committee
  • The board will not submit a compliance plan

That motion passed with five votes for it, one vote against it, and three board members choosing to pass on the vote.

Betsy Henderson seconded the motion and she later presented a PowerPoint that included quotes from various media sources. She said those quotes illustrated why the board would refuse to require people to wear masks and said she planned to deliver the presentation to the court.

When board member Jennifer Owen asked for one of the cited people's professional qualifications, Henderson said one of them was from an opinion writer for the New York Times.

She also said she was disappointed with the law department for "filing failing cases at the trial level and at the appeals court." She said that she drafted a letter to ask the law department to seek outside counsel.

If the department does not act, she said she would ask the county commission to give the board the power to seek outside counsel.

RELATED: Parents ask federal judge to help enforce mask mandate in Knox County Schools

Motion to Mediate with Plaintiffs

Board member Virginia Babb also said she wanted to file a motion to allow for mediation with the plaintiffs. However, she said the board needed to explicitly give the law department permission to engage in nonbinding mediation about the mask requirement.

She also suggested chair of the board, Kristi Kristy, and staff from KCS administration participate in the meetings. Henderson said she wanted to negotiate instead of mediating.

"I think what they sent us was absurd and absolutely ridiculous," Henderson said.

Babb's motion to mediate with the plaintiffs passed with four votes for it, two against and two members passing on the motion.

She also said without a guarantee that the court would rule on masks in schools soon, she wanted to act. She also said she does not support the requests for plaintiffs, but said it was all a part of negotiating during the trials.

Motion to Allow Some Students Not to Wear Masks

During the meeting, Kristy also said that the board was "discriminating" against students who received speech services and students who were granted exemptions. She suggested passing a policy to make sure those groups of students could stop wearing masks and said principals would be responsible for maintaining a list of exemptions.

Gary Dupler, the law director for KCS, said that the court would likely hold the board in contempt if it passed a blanket rejection of the requests and allowed some students to stop wearing masks. Kristy said she would support the motion anyway, even if the court holds her in contempt.

Kristy's original motion failed with four votes for it, three votes against it and two members passing on the vote.

Dupler later specified that federal judges have 'civil' and 'criminal' contempt powers. Most likely, he said the court may issue a fine for the board if it is found in contempt. However, he also warned that in an extreme case, it could lead to criminal contempt charges for members.

Motion to File a 'Change of Circumstance' in Court

Meanwhile, Susan Horn suggested filing a change of circumstance request in court, which would highlight changes in the COVID-19 situation across Knox County and reevaluate the need for mask requirements in Knox County schools.

"I still believe kids have a much higher risk when they get in school every day than they do of this," said Horn.

Babb also said that when the original injunction was put in place, kids were not eligible for vaccination. Now that they are eligible, she said the situation had changed.

She also said she believed case counts were dropping and expected them to continue dropping. She said she would want the request to be filed by Feb. 28, giving the law department time to acquire medical testimony supporting its case. In the motion, she also claims that masks protect wearers.

Owen said she could not support it because there is evidence showing community masking is more effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. Dupler also warned the law department would not be able to use newspaper articles in the request.

The motion passed with five 'yes' votes, one 'no' vote and two passes.

A motion directing the law director to appoint another attorney to help with KCS' case passed as well.

Vote of Confidence in the Law Department Proposal

Board member Mike McMillan suggested voting to support the law department handling the ongoing trials and court cases regarding masks in Knox County Schools. He did not directly address the requests for a compliance plan. He made the motion to allow the law department to totally handle the school district's response to the plaintiffs, and it was seconded by Owen.

Some members clarified it was essentially a vote of confidence in the law department. McMillan said he was worried about damaging Knox County Schools' case if they passed other kinds of motions.

"The immediate concern is to get the injunction removed, and masks off kids," Dupler said.

It passed with five votes for it, two votes against it and two passes.

"These plaintiffs have made some really heavy demands on this district, including the ones recently sent out," said Bounds.

She said she wanted to let the appeals court rule on an injunction before mediating, so that the board could act "from a position of strength, instead of weakness."

Board Member Daniel Watson said that he thinks if the board is found in contempt, it could place them in a weaker negotiating position if they later decide to mediate with plaintiffs.

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