KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A group of parents who sued the Knox County School Board and Governor Bill Lee over an absence of universal masking in public schools last year filed a motion on Monday requesting the judge to include new national health guidelines that would allow the current mask mandate in schools to be suspended soon.
"The new guidelines anticipate both the surge of the pandemic and the need for masks will be lifted in the not-too-distant future," a statement from the plaintiffs said. "While Knox County remains in the high-risk category currently, that is expected to change as case numbers continue to drop."
The lawsuit, which was filed in September 2021, argued Knox County Schools needed to continue following medical guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in order to protect and accommodate children with high-risk conditions, citing protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The parents, who all have students enrolled in KCS, argued their children were vulnerable to health risks because the school board narrowly voted to decline a universal mask mandate at a time when new infections and hospitalizations were surging in the community.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering Knox County Schools to re-implement a mask mandate for schoolchildren similar to the one it enforced in the 2020-21 school year. It also blocked Governor Bill Lee's mask opt-out executive order specifically for Knox County to allow the mandate to be enforced.
Shortly after filing the motion to end the mask mandate on the CDC's terms Monday, another group of parents against masking in schools sued the Knox County Board of Education, as well as the parents and children named in the above masking lawsuit in federal court, for what they called a due process violation.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs announced Monday he pledged $5,000 in private funding to support the lawsuit suing his county's school board over the court-order mask mandate along with State Representative Jason Zachary (R-Farragut).
In a statement, Jacobs said suing the school board "is not our first choice," claiming it was the "only way to get the case heard."
The Knox County Board of Education, which originally voted to drop the mask mandate in schools last fall, is now at the center of two competing lawsuits over masks that may continue even if the court accepts the motion to adopt the new CDC standards allowing for a suspension of the mask mandate.
Earlier in February, the board expressed dissatisfaction with the county law director's handling of the first mask lawsuit, with one board member saying they lost confidence in the county's ability to fight the lawsuit on their behalf. The BOE voted on a measure to encourage the county's lawyers to negotiate with the parents' lawyers to resolve the mask case, which the parents' lawyer went on record saying they would be willing to do so.
The competing lawsuit filed Monday was made by a group calling themselves the "Unmask Knox County Kids Association" and other parents.
"Knox County Schools' students are the only ones in the country being federally forced to cover their faces," Jacobs said in his statement about the new lawsuit.
The parents who argued for masking in schools responded to the lawsuit against them.
"Even though the lawsuit appears to have no legal merit, it will prove enormously costly and divisive for everyone. Sadly, it follows much other disinformation and heated rhetoric," the plaintiffs said.
In September 2021 during the height of the Delta variant's surge, CDC guidance included adherence to universal masking in schools and large public settings as one measure to prevent the spread of the virus and to prevent already-strained healthcare systems from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Last week the CDC updated its guidance in light of the comparatively lessened impact of Omicron-variant infections despite record-breaking outbreaks of the virus, easing off on its masking guidance to no longer recommend them in communities where COVID-19's threat to hospitals has lessened. That included roughly 70% of the U.S. population at the time, and disease experts credited the dulled impact to growing levels of immune protection -- both from vaccines and infection -- saying the risk of severe infections from COVID-19 continues to trend downward.
However, Knox County was still considered "high" risk due to higher-than-average COVID-19 hospitalizations compared to most of the U.S., which regional hospitals like UT Medical Center continue to say the vast majority of COVID patients they've seen have been people who weren't fully vaccinated. That risk is expected to taper off in the coming days as hospitalizations continue to decline.