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Knox County Schools votes not to give superintendent power to implement COVID-19 policies, including mask mandate

During a meeting last week, Knox County Schools had an intense discussion about the board's power and authority to implement COVID-19 safety policies.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — UPDATE (9 p.m.): Leaders in Knox County Schools voted not to give Superintendent Bob Thomas the powers to implement a mask mandate and other COVID-19 safety policies, leaving the choice for students to wear masks to families.

The motion failed 4-5 Wednesday evening. Members Betsy Henderson, Patti Bounds, Susan Horn, Mike McMillan and Kristi Kristy voted against it.

Spanish Version: KCS vota para no dar al superintendente el poder de aplicar políticas de COVID-19, incluyendo el mandato de la mascarilla

The motion was introduced by Daniel Watson and would have given Thomas the ability to implement a mask mandate in schools, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. McMillan said he would not vote for it because it named the CDC as providing guidance.

"I do not have any confidence in the CDC," he said. "We really do not know much about what the CDC is right now … If we’re going to vote on something, I’m not going to vote on it. I just want everyone to understand.”

During the lengthy meeting, parents and officials provided a litany of comments. Some parents said that their kids suffered mental anguish as a result of wearing masks, while others said those same students would be protected by them.

Many educators who attended the event said that they had attended the funerals of students as a result of COVID-19, and wanted to make sure that the pain would not be felt by other families in the future. Masks would prevent the spread of COVID-19 as cases start rising and hospitalizations rise across East Tennessee.

"When personal choice impacts other people, it is no longer personal," said Jennifer Owen who said she supported masks.

Many board members also shared pictures of swim meets and major events where few people wore masks. They said that since people would not wear masks at these events, it was futile to mandate masks at schools.

However, Student Representative Raymond Jin said many students would wear masks in schools if it were mandated. He also said many do not currently wear masks just because there is not a mandate.

Horn said she could not vote on the proposal because it would hand too much power to the superintendent. 

"I would also be a little concerned about this body asking the superintendent to make this kind of choice when we are the ones who have been elected," she said. "We are here to uphold the freedom and liberty of the people, and I think people can make good choices in our schools."

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Knox County Schools leaders were set to meet Wednesday evening to vote on whether they would implement new COVID-19 safety policies as cases continue rising across East Tennessee.

On Aug. 4, educators held a work session and discussed the upcoming agenda. However, instead of talking specifically about masks and COVID-19, an agenda item led Knox County Schools leaders to an intense discussion about the power of the board and its authority to enforce health rules in schools.

"This isn't an issue about what our guidelines are," said Jennifer Owen, a board member. "This is an issue of this board voting, and that vote not mattering... We have seen superintendents long ago literally do something illegal and the board come back, retroactively vote, and make it all okay. I know many of us are here because we know that path was a very wrong path."

Board members and their legal advisors seemed uncertain if the board still had the authority to implement mask mandates at school. Other members, such as Mike McMillan, said they were against requiring students and staff to wear masks outright, regardless of the board's power.

Two days after the meeting, the Deputy Knox County Law Director said that the board had the legal authority to implement a mask requirement while discussing COVID-19 related messaging with health leaders.

"The KCBOE [Knox County Board of Education] presently has the legal authority to institute a mask policy requirement, but our office does not recommend that the Board institute such a policy based upon Governor Lee's Executive orders and other information," said Gary Dupler in an email.

Other items on the agenda included a framework plan on the application to the Tennessee Department of Education for American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.

They were also set to vote on approving 4% salary increases for custodial, educational assistant and school secretary positions. The plan also included a $1,000 one-time hiring bonus and a $1,000 retention bonus for custodial and nutrition staff.