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Knox County Schools drops mask mandate after federal judge amends order to new CDC guidance

Judge Ronnie Greer amended an order after both the plaintiffs and defendants in the September 2021 lawsuit agreed to suspend the mask mandate.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — Knox County Schools said it is no longer requiring students or teachers to wear masks after a federal judge on Monday amended his order in line with new federal health guidelines.

Judge Ronnie Greer amended an order after both the plaintiffs and defendants in the September 2021 lawsuit agreed to suspend the mask mandate as the case goes through mediation.

"I was very excited to hear that our children will go back to school after spring break without masks on," school board member Betsy Henderson said. "While it's a win for now, we definitely have we have some work to do to get these masks permanently off our children."

KCS said it would no longer require masks in schools shortly after the judge approved the amendment, saying students and staff can still choose to wear one.

This comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently downgraded Knox County and several other East Tennessee counties to a "medium" community-level threat level. With that downgrade, health leaders said most people could stop wearing masks and people at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19 should speak with their doctors about prevention methods.

At a school board meeting last Monday, Gary Dupler, the Knox County Deputy Law Director, said the plaintiffs who asked a federal judge to implement universal masking requirements last year in Knox County Schools, per recommendations from the CDC, indicated they would be open to suspending the mandate while the case goes through mediation.

Dupler told the school board that both plaintiffs and defendants agreed on suspending the mask mandate, but did not agree on why it should be suspended.

"The good news is [this ruling on masks] takes us until the end of school," school board member Patti Bounds said. "We'll see what we can accomplish through mediation."

Dupler said the law director's office doesn't think kids in Knox County Schools should be required to wear masks at all. He said the plaintiffs think the mask mandate should be based on CDC guidelines.

On Tuesday, Justin Gilbert, the lawyer who originally sued Knox County Schools to require people to wear masks, said he's working with the Knox County School Board on language about "lifting the mask mandate during the negotiation period." Gilbert said that is in progress. 

Judge Greer on Monday granted the joint motion to lift the mask mandate until mediation is concluded. He said if circumstances should change before that happens, the plaintiffs would still be able to reinstate their preliminary injunction or seek a modified preliminary injunction.

"The parties’ joint request for modification of the Court’s preliminary injunction is consistent with the Centers for Disease Control’s current guidance, which now states that mask-wearing should be a matter of “personal preference” in communities where the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is low," he said.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals scheduled an oral argument on an appeal by Knox County Board of Education on the original preliminary injunction that required everyone in Knox County Schools to wear masks. The oral arguments are scheduled for May 4, 2022, in Cincinnati.


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