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Knox County schools seek flexibility to court’s mask mandate

October 5, 2021 GMT

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Knox County school officials are asking a federal judge to loosen exemptions surrounding a recently implemented school mask mandate ordered by the court, arguing that they need more flexibility in determining who needs a mask.

Last month, U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer ruled that Knox County Schools must adopt a mask mandate to help protect children with health problems more susceptible to the coronavirus pandemic. He also blocked Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt out of school masks mandates from being enforced. The two changes remain in effect while the legal battle continues to move its way through court.

The ruling was one of three similar decisions where federal judges put a pause on Lee’s order for three counties. Families and advocates across the state have challenged the policy in a handful of lawsuits amid spiking virus case numbers in schools.

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Yet in Knox County, which includes Knoxville, the order sparked heated protests from those who opposed mask mandates and other COVID-19 precautions. Some students have faced adults calling them “sheep” while wearing a mask as at least one Republican state lawmaker encouraged families to “make a stand” and defy Greer’s order.

Meanwhile, Knox County Schools officials say Greer’s mask mandate allowed only students with autism or tracheotomy to not wear a mask while in school.

“A list of medical conditions to be exempted is simply not a workable system and will result in a list of exemptions that are both under- and over-inclusive,” attorneys for the school district argued in filing from last week. “A determination of if a student must be exempted from wearing a mask should be made on an individualized basis.”

Court documents state that more than 700 students “refused to wear a mask at school” on the first day the mask mandate was in place. The following day, more than 530 students showed up without a mask, the district said in a filing.

While that’s a tiny portion of the more than 60,000 students enrolled in the county, the school district argues that the mandate has put a strain on resources as schools and staff try to enforce the requirement on resistant families.

“Moreover, it is evident that parental and student resistance to the Court’s order will continue,” the school argued. “If this continues, those students who are sent home each day due to their failure to wear a mask may be deprived of his/her (Tennessee) constitutional right to a free public education.”

Greer has not yet weighed in on granting more exemptions.