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Federal judges rule against Lee's student mask order in Williamson, Knox counties

Bill Lee
In this July 1, 2020, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions during a news conference in Nashville, Tenn. Lee on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, would not say whether he would be vaccinated against COVID-19 when a vaccine becomes available. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Federal judges rule against Lee’s student mask order in Williamson, Knox counties

September 27, 12:00 PM September 27, 12:00 PM

Federal judges ruled in favor of parents in Williamson and Knox counties Friday, allowing school districts in those Tennessee counties to enforce mask mandates in their schools.

Plaintiffs in both cases are the parents of students with disabilities who argued Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates violated their students’ rights to protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act because the order does not provide proper protection for their students, who have chronic lung disease, a rare brain disorder and a congenital heart defect, as was argued in the Knox County case.

In Knox County, as in a similar previous ruling in Shelby County, the injunction will last until the completion of the case. In Williamson County, the injunction is valid until midnight Oct. 5 unless the court extends the order.

In Shelby County, the plaintiffs in the case are 11-, 13- and 14-year-olds in Shelby County schools with disabilities that put them at higher risk for infection and side effects from infection.

In Williamson County, the plaintiffs – 7- and 13-year-old girls who go to public schools in the county – have Down syndrome and Type-1 diabetes.

“That disabled students are at a significantly higher risk for severe infection and are exposed at a higher rate following Executive Order No. 84 is itself an irreparable harm that justifies injunctive relief,” judge Waverly D. Crenshaw wrote in his ruling in U.S. District Court in Middle Tennessee.

The ruling is valid in Williamson County Schools and the Franklin Special School District.

The Knox County order allows for opt outs of the mask mandate for students with autism or a tracheotomy.

“Governor Lee contends that a preliminary injunction is not in the public interest because it would divest parents of the right ‘to direct the education of their children,’ U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer wrote in Tennessee’s Eastern District. “But this contention falls back on his prior argument that this case involves a dispute over questions fundamental to education under the IDEA. This argument reads an attempt to recast Plaintiffs’ claims in an image of Governor Lee’s making, and so the Court says again: this case involves a dispute under the ADA over Plaintiffs’ right to safe public access to their school buildings.”

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