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Two more federal judges rule against Tennessee governor’s ban on mask mandates


A youth returns home from school in Franklin, Tenn., Sept. 16, 2021. Gov. Bill Lee is one of several Republican governors who have sought to use executive powers to stop schools from implementing mask policies.

By Alexandra E. Petri


Two federal judges in Tennessee have dealt blows to Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order that allows families to opt out of school mask mandates, ruling in separate cases late last week that local districts could require face coverings to protect children with disabilities while legal challenges progress through the courts.


It was the third time in the past two weeks that a judge had suspended the governor’s order after parents of special education students filed lawsuits charging the order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.


Lee is one of several Republican governors who have used their executive powers to stop school districts from implementing mask policies, playing to conservative voters who regard such rules as an infringement on parental rights and personal liberties.


The debate over masks in schools has become highly politicized, as tens of millions of students across the country have returned to the classroom. Texas, Florida, Arizona and Iowa are among the states where governors have tried to ban mask requirements in direct opposition to local school leaders who want them.


President Joe Biden’s administration has waded into the fray. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating orders issued by governors in seven states, including Tennessee, to determine if allowing parents to ignore mask mandates for their children discriminates against students with disabilities by restricting their access to education.


The same legal theory is at the heart of the lawsuits in Tennessee. Earlier this month, the Knox County Board of Education had voted against requiring masks in its schools, bucking guidance from local and federal health officials. The following day, families who have children with disabilities filed a class-action lawsuit, arguing that the school board’s decision did not create a safe, in-person learning environment for children during the coronavirus pandemic.


On Friday, U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer, of the Eastern District of Tennessee, ruled that schools in Knox County must enforce a mask rule in order to help protect children with health problems while the lawsuit is pending. He prohibited the governor from imposing his order until the legal battle is settled.


A similar decision was handed down by U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw, of the Middle District of Tennessee, who said Friday that schools in Williamson County and in the Franklin Special School District can enforce mask mandates, also blocking the governor’s order.


Both school systems implemented strict mask policies through at least January to combat surging infections in their districts, but Lee’s order, issued Aug. 16, forced the school officials to amend their rules to let students forgo masks, no questions asked. Once again, parents of special education students filed a lawsuit, arguing that letting some students ignore the mask rules violated the rights of special education children.


Last week, a third federal judge, this time in the western part of the state, indefinitely blocked the governor’s order in Shelby County, saying it was an impediment to children with health problems from safely going to school during the coronavirus pandemic.


Lee’s order is set to expire Oct. 5, and he told reporters that he has not yet decided whether to renew it. A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment Friday.


Justin Gilbert, a lawyer representing parents who filed suits in Knox, Williamson and Franklin counties, said that three federal judges “have saved children from an executive order built on wedge-issue politics, not on science.”


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