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District judge denies more appeals by Knox Co. BOE and Gov. Lee to end school mask mandate

The judge denied the appeals, saying the school board's "slack enforcement" of social distancing measures were ineffective in protecting children at risk to COVID.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — An East Tennessee District Court judge has denied more appeals by the Knox County Board of Education and Governor Bill Lee to overturn a ruling that required Knox County Schools to reimplement a universal mask mandate.

Judge Ronnie Greer with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee denied another motion to stay an injunction pending appeal over his late September ruling that required Knox County Schools to reimplement its 2020 mask mandate. Greer's ruling came after parents of medically compromised children sued the school board and the governor over a lack of COVID-19 precautions to accomodate their children required under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The ruling also blocked Lee's executive order from applying in Knox County. Lee's order allowed parents to opt their children out of any school mask mandates.

The BOE argued in its appeal the court usurped the board's authority in ordering the school system to reimplement masking for students and staff -- claiming the mandate was not a "reasonable accommodation" under the ADA. 

The judge disagreed, saying the BOE's argument was "unavailing" and that the ADA clearly permitted the court to step in to address discriminatory effects of "benign actions or inaction" by the BOE after it voted in early September not to adopt a mask mandate on September 1 amid the peak of a COVID-19 outbreak in schools. 

The court said it did not create any new mandates in its ruling -- but instead restored the original mandate that had been put into effect by Knox County Schools during the 2020-21 school year, restoring the status quo to meet ADA standards and accommodate the preliminary injunction until a trial could be held to discuss the merits of the lawsuit.

Governor Lee said the district court misapplied legal principals in its ruling to block his executive order in Knox County, arguing the parents who filed the lawsuit did not show measures other than mask mandates were ineffective. The BOE had argued KCS had already provided ADA accommodations in the form of three feet of social distancing "wherever possible," "intense cleaning" protocols, hand sanitizer in classrooms, and that it "recommended masks." 

Judge Greer did not find the argument particularly convincing, saying the evidence clearly showed the BOE's "slack enforcement" of social distancing measures were not at all effective in addressing the plaintiffs' needs based on the 600% day-over-day increases in positive COVID-19 cases in Knox County school children at the time.

"[The evidence] clearly established that the Knox County Board of Education’s accommodations simply could not be effective without a mask mandate," Greer said in the ruling, citing testimonies from two local doctors who argued universal mask-wearing was the "primary" method of mitigating COVID-19's spread in close-contact indoor settings like schools. The judge said Lee provided no evidence to refute the doctors' testimonies.

Furthermore, the judge said the BOE considered Lee's executive order in its early September decision not to issue a mask mandate in schools, saying the board determined "no universal mask mandate can be put into place." Lee had argued the judge's ruling had been "novel" and "speculative,"  but Greer said his ruling was rooted in a precedent set by an earlier federal lawsuit in the Western District of Tennessee court system that had also blocked Lee's opt-out order in early September, allowing the Shelby County Department of Health to reimplement universal masking in schools.

Based on these factors, Greer denied the governor's and the Knox Co. BOE's appeal.

The Knox County school board is now bringing its appeal up to a higher court, hoping for a favorable ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati to block the preliminary injunction. The BOE on Tuesday filed a short notice of appeal asking the appellate court to toss out Judge Greer's ruling.