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Federal judge denies Knox Co. BOE request to alter mask mandate ruling

This comes after the BOE asked a federal judge to temporarily halt his rulings on masks in schools as a whole on Oct. 13.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — A federal judge has denied a Knox County Board of Education request to alter his mask mandate ruling.

This comes after the BOE asked a federal judge to temporarily halt his rulings on masks in schools as a whole on Oct. 13.

At the time, the BOE said it must serve all students, including those who refuse to wear a mask and has a duty to educate these students. It also said relying on medical exemptions for masks is an “inappropriate” way of deciding accommodations.

In the ruling released on Monday, Oct. 18, the judge said:

  1. The mask mandate is not an undue burden on the school district and that the circumstances "do not appear to be meaningfully different from the circumstances that it envisioned and prepared for during last year’s voluntary mask mandate."
  2. The court did not break the law in ordering the mandate.
  3. Virtual school is not the same as in-person so is not an equal alternative for parents who want masks.

The judge's original ruling on Oct. 12 said 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 would 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, according to the ruling. 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 but would not change the mask mandate for the vast majority of Knox County students and educators.