KNOXVILLE, Tenn — Knox County Schools said it has seen more students unenrolled from the district this school year in the wake of arguments over COVID-19 prevention measures and mask mandates.
The school system was ordered to re-implement a mask mandate by a federal judge on September 28 following a lawsuit from parents who argued their children were vulnerable to health risks from COVID-19, sparking backlash from some parents and others opposed to face masks.
Some parents threatened to pull their children out of school if the mandate was implemented, and it seems a few followed through on that threat. However, the same appears to be true for many parents who said prior to the mandate they wouldn't let their children attend school without one out of concern for their health and safety after the Knox County Board of Education voted not to implement one.
Knox County Schools has more than 60,000 students enrolled across the district, and it has seen its enrollment drop by more than 5% since the start of the school year.
It's important for context to note many students were likely unenrolled for reasons other than the COVID-19 pandemic, though, such as families moving to a new city for job reasons, students transferring to a different school system, or a private school, or students dropping out of school.
Prior to the court-ordered mandate, the Knox County Board of Education on September 1 voted not to implement a mask mandate in the school system at a time when COVID-19 active cases and hospitalizations were at all-time highs for both adults and children locally.
Knox County Schools said the day after on Sept. 2, it saw 18 students unenroll from the school system.
Prior to this point, though, roughly 2,990 students had already been unenrolled from the school system since August, which includes in-state and out-of-state transfers, transfers to non-public schools, withdrawals from homeschool and pre-K, and dropouts. Several parents up to this point had demanded a mask mandate and argued they'd have to pull their children out of schools for their health and safety.
"Our youngest has viral-induced asthma and Levi also has asthma with some diminishing lung capacity," Knox County mother Erin Dodd said back on August 26. It became abundantly clear that they were not going to do what it was going to take to keep our children as safe as possible."
During this period, a total of 395 students moved to homeschool between Aug. 9 and Sept. 2.
Fast-forward to October 1, days after the mask mandate had been reimplemented. Several other parents arguing against the mandates said they'd pull their children out of school. Knox County mom, Cyndi Collins, said she felt the mask mandate wasn't fair and said state lawmakers should intervene.
"It's about time people stand up and go against this," she said. Everybody has a right to speak out. Have their voice heard. I appreciate the people who are fighting for their kids. Appreciate me fighting for mine.”
KCS said it saw 37 children unenrolled on the first day of the mandate -- spiking to 53 students the day of September 29. KCS said a total of 442 students -- about 47 more since September 2 -- had enrolled in homeschooling since August 9.
Public school districts in Tennessee's three largest metropolitan areas -- Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville -- have all reimplemented mask mandates.
While Knox County's mandate was issued out of a court order, school districts in both Nashville and Memphis implemented the mandates independently, prompting Governor Bill Lee to issue an executive order that allowed parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates. Federal judges in those districts have similarly blocked the governor's opt-out rule from overriding the school system's policy, but those rulings do not apply to outside districts.
State lawmakers on Wednesday announced they will take up another special session to discuss COVID-19 in the state. The call was signed by more than two-thirds of Republican members from both chambers.
Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) formally issued the call for the special session over "overreaching health care mandates," though it is yet to be seen what, if any, legislation could be proposed to effectively override or bypass President Joe Biden's incoming vaccine mandate for federal workers and private companies with 100-plus employees when it takes effect -- let alone several court-ordered injunctions that have seen any appeals promptly denied.
"The COVID-19 crisis — and how various institutions have adapted and reacted to it — has created new and unique legislative challenges. This is an opportunity to make the General Assembly’s voice heard on issues regarding masks, vaccines, executive power, and federal mandates,” McNally said.
Representative Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) and other Tennessee Democrats said they opposed the call for a special session, calling it counterproductive for the state.
"It's very distressing. And now we're going to have a special session that is going to be more about preventing the good things to happen that will stop the virus,” she said.