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Knox County school board unhappy with law director's handling of ongoing mask lawsuit

Knox County Board of Education chair Kristi Kristy and member Betsy Henderson called the law director's suggestions "ridiculous."

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Knox County School Board chair Kristi Kristy said she does not have confidence in the Law Director's office to fight the ongoing lawsuit that led a federal court judge to order Knox County Schools to re-implement a mask mandate. 

Kristy and School Board Member Betsy Henderson sent a letter to David Buuk, the Knox County Law Director, asking him to hire outside counsel to represent the Board of Education in the case. 

The two members said the law director made suggestions to make sure the school district complied with the judge's order in that case: 

  • Suspend children not wearing masks properly
  • Not allow parents to attend sporting events
  • Shutting the lights off and sending everyone home at extracurricular activities where parents and students are not in full compliance

Kristy and Henderson said those suggestions are "ridiculous."

The letter said the law director's office did not introduce a single medical expert for the court to consider who'd argue against universal masking in schools.

In September 2021, the parents who filed the lawsuit brought in doctors and other medical experts to testify in the case, who all argued in favor of universal masking as a "primary way to mitigate the spread of coronavirus" amid the height of the Delta variant surge. 

School Board Member Virginia Babb said she would like to see the county's lawyers negotiate with the parents instead of waiting for a ruling from the appeals court. 

On Wednesday, the school board voted on a resolution to encourage the county's lawyers to negotiate with the plaintiffs' lawyers in the mask case. 

"We kind of tried to give our lawyers some direction," said Babb.

Babb said the school board can't give advice to the lawyers fighting on their behalf because they'd have to do so publicly. Tennessee's Sunshine Laws require public officials to hold meetings in public and notify the public of those meetings.

She said she felt the school board would not be wise to tell lawyers how to negotiate in public. Babb said she would like to see an exception to the Sunshine Laws for legal counsel. 

Justin Gilbert, the lawyer who brought the lawsuit on behalf of the parents in Knox County Schools, said he would like to negotiate with the school board's lawyers on how to make sure students are complying with the mask order handed down by the federal judge. 

Gilbert also said he would like for his medical experts to work with the school board's experts on a mitigation plan for the coronavirus pandemic moving forward. He said if they come to a reasonable agreement, he hopes both sides can present that to the federal judge and end the case. 

Gilbert said he has not gotten the opportunity to negotiate in the way he would like with the Knox County attorneys. He said if the experts agree on a plan moving forward, he hopes masks are not required by everybody in Knox County Schools at the beginning of the next school year. 

Meanwhile, Babb said she doesn't want decisions regarding masks in schools to be up to federal courts, rather she would like the School Board to have that authority.

Babb voted in favor of a mask mandate when the issue came up before the school year, however, she said the situation has changed with vaccines now available for everybody in a Knox County public school.

The school board voted not to institute a mask mandate in schools at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, which happened after Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order allowing parents to opt children out of local school mask mandates. 

After the decision, some Knox County Schools parents sued the district and the state of Tennessee, asking a Federal Court to impose a mask mandate under the American Disabilities Act and to block the governor's opt-out rule. In late September, Judge Ronnie Greer ordered KCS to re-implement a similar mask mandate to the one it enforced in 2020. He also blocked the governor's order specifically for Knox County Schools until the lawsuit could be formally heard in court or resolved.

All of those parents had kids with severe medical conditions. They said it would not be safe for their kids to go to school if there were no universal masking in place. 

School board chair Kristi Kristy said she is not in favor of a mask mandate.

"Really, we all want to see all of the kids out of masks," said Kristy.

Before this school year began amid the Delta surge, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended universal masking for everybody in K-12 schools. As of Jan. 27, 2022, the AAP continued to recommend universal indoor masking as a precaution in schools. Several states such as California and Connecticut, which formerly had strict mandates, began lifting those rules in early February as case counts from the omicron surge rapidly declined.

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