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Judge rules mask mandate will remain in place in Knox Co. Schools with 'very few' medical exemptions

The judge's ruling will not change the mask mandate for the vast majority of Knox County students and educators.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — A federal judge has ruled Knox County Schools must continue to enforce a mask mandate for most students and staff, but agreed with the parents who initially sued the school system over a lack of a mask mandate to allow a few additional medical exemptions beyond the two listed in the original court order.

The district will be allowed to grant "very few" medical exemptions to the current mask policy, and must submit a list of all exemptions it grants to the federal count on a monthly basis. The list will include the names of students and reasons for the exemption, as well as whether the student was exempt last school year under the mask mandate imposed by Knox County Schools. The first report will be due November 1.

The federal ruling continued to block Governor Bill Lee's mask opt-out executive order. The judge's ruling will not change the mask mandate for the vast majority of Knox County students and educators.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer criticized Knox County lawyers that argued for more sweeping mask mandate exemptions, lambasting county and district leadership for a lack of foresight.

“The Court would be much more sympathetic to the Knox County Board of Education’s argument if not for the fact that it had every occasion, both before and during the preliminary injunction hearing, to argue in the alternative as to what a mask mandate—with exemptions— ought to look like if the Court elected to put one in place, which it ultimately did. But the Knox County Board of Education presented no such argument or evidence, yet it now blames the Court instead of itself for its own lack of foresight," the ruling read. "Its cry of manifest injustice is therefore at best meritless and at worst disingenuous.”

In late September, Judge Greer ordered KCS to implement a mask mandate with exemptions only for students with autism or a tracheotomy, blocking Gov. Lee's mask mandate opt-out executive order in the county. Greer's ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in September by the parents of four Knox County Schools schoolchildren who argued their children were vulnerable to health risks because the school system had no mask mandate in place. 

Both Knox County and Lee appealed the ruling, with the county BOE arguing it should be allowed to implement similar mask exemptions to ones it had during the 2020-21 school year.

The parents who originally sued the school system over the lack of a mask mandate later submitted their opinions to the appeal, agreeing that a few other medical exemptions to the rule should be allowed with a physician's certification.

"To prevent the exemption from swallowing the masking rule, Plaintiffs suggest that exemptions from masking (students, teachers and visitors alike) be accompanied by proof from the individual's treating physician certifying the existence of the condition/disability and that such condition prevents wearing a facial mask for that person."

Knox County attorneys cited "community resistance" to the mandate in its appeal, saying roughly 700 of 60,000-plus students at Knox County Schools refused to wear a mask and were isolated in large rooms the day the mandate was reimplemented -- which dropped to less than 1% of a students a couple days later. A total of 16 staff were also sent home across the district the day the mandate began.

"The only way to enforce the 'reasonable accommodation' required by the Court is to directly impact the rights of other students to an education," they said in the motion.

Kristi Kristy, the chair of the Knox County Board of Education, released the following statement Tuesday evening:

I have heard from countless Knox County families who have been incredibly worried about the impact of this ruling. I know that Judge Greer’s decision to allow for medical exemptions is a relief to so many of our parents.

I continue to believe that the Knox County School Board should be making the governing decisions for our schools. That’s what we were elected to do.

Superintendent Bob Thomas also sent a letter to families about the ruling. He said that while the blanket exemption for autism and tracheotomy no longer exists, the district can authorize a mask exemption if there is documentation that demonstrates a medical need.

He said that individualized education plans and 504s do not automatically exempt students from the mask mandate. However, students who were eligible last year based on a pre-existing IEP or 504 plan and who had an approved exemption will be exempt beginning on Monday, Oct. 18. 

Parents who believe that their student has a diagnosis requiring accommodations should notify their child's principal, he said in the letter.

Students and staff who do not qualify for an exemption and visitors will need to wear a mask while inside KCS facilities. Non-masked students who can be immediately transported by a parent or guardian will need to return home.

Meanwhile, students who arrive at school by bus or who take their masks off while at school will stay in a specific area while a parent or guardian is called to pick them up.

Students who refuse to wear a mask will be counted absent and will not be given access to assignments while at school, Thomas said in the letter. If they are marked absent, they can follow the district's make-up work guidelines.