KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Knox County Schools superintendent asked for "kindness and grace" toward staff as some parents planned to refuse a federal judge's order mandating masks inside Knox County classrooms starting Tuesday.
The state's third-largest district canceled a day of school to prepare to enforce the federal order, but anti-mask protesters still gathered outside some schools carrying signs Monday morning.
The district's bus drivers demanded additional support to enforce the mandate and the chairperson of the Knox County Board of Education warned of challenges ahead.
"I think the division in our community will show up at the school door tomorrow," Kristi Kristy said Monday. "I think it will be very challenging tomorrow."
On Monday, The Knox County Sheriff's Office said it received one report from someone concerned about an anti-mask social media post. The Knoxville Police Department said officers were monitoring the potential for protests surrounding the mask mandate.
"I am not going to comply," said A.L. Lotts Elementary School parent Rebekah Reeves. "I am not planning on any violence, I’m not planning on causing a ruckus. I have already emailed all [my children's] teachers to let them know how I feel."
Reeves said she plans to walk her students to school Tuesday unmasked, in defiance of the judge's order and district policy.
In a letter to parents, Superintendent Bob Thomas said the district would return to last year's discipline procedures for students who do not wear masks.
"Students who refuse to wear a mask will be allowed in the school building, but please know they will not be in their regular classroom," he said. "A parent/guardian may take their child home for refusing to wear a mask, but the child’s absence will be counted as unexcused."
According to district policy, a first and second violation of the mask rule will result in a verbal warning. Then the offender will be removed from the general population of students. For the fourth violation, the school will call parents and ask them to pick up their children.
Other parents welcomed the ordered change in policy, which had been under debate for months as COVID-19 cases in schools spiked this fall.
"The people in charge weren’t caring for [my son] in the way that every scientist thinks they should be," Ball Camp Elementary School parent Nick Geidner said.
He believes his son, Henry, contracted the virus at school a few weeks ago and said his son is among the minority of students who have been attending school in masks.
"I was really happy to see that his situation is going to change and that he’s going to be surrounded by other people wearing a mask," Geidner said.
In his email to parents, Thomas asked for understanding from parents as the district worked to reopen—and asked the judge for more exceptions to mask ruling.
"Please remember that our teachers, administrators, and other school staff are not responsible for the face covering mandate. This is the result of a federal judge’s order, and we are all simply trying to fulfill our duties to enforce it," Thomas said.