Mask Madness in Knox County

After a federal judge on Friday ruled that Knox County Schools must make masks mandatory, a group of parents began organizing a protest – suggesting they would send their kids to school without masks and then refuse to pick them up. Then, the planned protests escalated to using cars to block entrances to schools. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs tweeted in favor of resisting the judge’s order. Now, though, the school system has closed for tomorrow as the district prepares to both enforce the judge’s ruling and deal with the protesting parents. The Knox County School Board had previously refused to issue the type of mandatory mask order that is in effect in a number of school districts across the state.

Here’s more on the story in a series of tweets from various players:

https://twitter.com/KnoxvilleHoller/status/1441864236335091716?s=20

Looks like someone missed the Intro. to U.S. Constitution class:

Rep. Gloria Johnson reports on the protest escalating:

The end result: Schools are closed in Knox County tomorrow. Ostensibly, they will reopen Tuesday. However, it is not yet clear how the schools will go about enforcing the mandate and keeping kids safe in light of the escalating rhetoric around protesting the mandate.

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Lee Strikes Out

Governor Bill Lee has lost in all three federal district courts in Tennessee in his attempt to prevent universal masking mandates in public schools. Yesterday (9/24), Lee lost in the East and Middle districts of Tennessee and he had already lost in the West district.

Meghan Mangrum and Mariah Timms have more in the Tennessean on the court ruling in Middle Tennessee:

Williamson County and Franklin Special schools will be able to enforce mask mandates under a ruling Friday from a federal judge in Nashville. 

U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. issued the order in the afternoon, blocking Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of the district’s mask mandates. 

The judge’s decision is temporary, lasting until 11:59 p.m. on Oct 5, the same time as Lee’s order is set to expire. On Friday, the governor told reporters he hasn’t yet decided on whether to renew the executive order. 

In spite of the setbacks in court designed to maximize student safety by mitigating COVID spread, Lee has indicated he may renew his order. Of course, that would be a moot point in at least Shelby and Knox County’s, as the rulings there overrule the opt-out approach Lee is promoting.

Nashville state Senator Jeff Yarbro pointed out Lee’s losing streak in a tweet:

It’s unclear why Lee would persist with a model he suggests he has no plans to enforce and which judges have ruled essentially unenforceable.

and now the governor says he isn’t planning to take action against districts that don’t comply with his order on mask opt-outs.

Something about you can’t please all the people all the time comes to mind.

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Mask Mandate Mandatory

A federal judge has ordered Knox County Schools to mandate masks with no opt-out in order to protect student safety. The move follows a recent order by a federal judge that Shelby County Schools may enforce a mask mandate with no opt-out in defiance of Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order requiring an opt-out option.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel has more:

Knox County Schools must require all staff and students to wear masks in schools while a lawsuit by families of disabled children plays out, a federal judge ruled Friday. The ruling takes effect immediately. 

U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer also blocked Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing Knox County Schools parents to opt out of the mask mandate. The judge’s ruling only applies to the school district.

The governor’s executive order was already set to expire Oct. 5. Jessica Salonus, a lawyer representing the four families who are suing the Knox County Board of Education and the governor, said that even if Lee extends his opt-out order, it still won’t apply in Knox County.

A similar lawsuit is now pending in Williamson County.

The rulings in Shelby and Knox counties mean that Lee’s opt-out order is essentially a moot point in two of the state’s four largest school districts.

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Sumner County to Ask for Flexibility in COVID Response

After closing for an entire week due to COVID-19, the Sumner County School Board is poised to vote on a resolution asking Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly to grant additional flexibility to school districts in dealing with the pandemic.

The move in Sumner County even as parents in districts across the state are suing Lee over his executive order allowing students/parents to opt-out of local mask mandates.

Sumner County does not have a mask mandate in effect in the district. However, they are asking for the ability to move to hybrid or remote learning options should COVID outbreaks create a burden on the system in terms of student/faculty/staff absences.

Here’s more on the proposed resolution from the Hendersonville Standard:

After closing the district’s 49 schools last week due to COVID-19, the Sumner County Board of Education will likely vote on Tuesday to ask state legislators to reinstate some of the flexibility they had during the previous school year with hybrid and remote learning.

Director of Schools Dr. Del Phillips presented a resolution to school board members during a study session on Sept. 7.

The resolution urges the Tennessee General Assembly and the state Board of Education to reinstate some flexibility for local school boards to transition districts to hybrid or remote learning for a short, specified period of time in order to combat any future variants or surges of COVID-19.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who represents a part of Sumner County in the General Assembly, said he was open to legislative consideration of the resolution. It’s worth noting, though, that Lamberth is also supportive of Lee’s mask opt-out.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) says he’s open to considering the school board’s resolution should it pass next week.

However, he says Gov. Lee and state Republicans have made their preference for in-person learning very clear.

“Our preference is that they do everything they can to keep kids in school,” he said.

Given the current status of the lawsuit against Lee’s order in Shelby County and the advice of medical professionals regarding mitigating the spread of COVID-19, it seems that doing “everything possible” in order to ensure children are in school would include a mask mandate.

Such mandates are in effect in Davidson, Wilson, Rutherford, and Williamson counties in middle Tennessee.

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Lawsuits Stacking Up as Lee’s COVID (Non)Response Makes Matters Worse

Lawsuits from parents in Williamson and Knox counties are challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing opting out of a school district’s mask policy. The suits are similar to a suit from Shelby County parents. In the Shelby County suit, a judge today granted an injunction preventing Lee’s opt-out plan from going forward.

Meghan Mangrum has more on the Williamson County suit in the Tennessean:

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Nashville, names the governor, the Williamson County Board of Education and Franklin Special School District as defendants, alleging that the governor’s order “has failed to allow school districts to afford the reasonable accommodation of implementing a universal masking policy that does not contain a voluntary opt-out.”

In addition, the complaint alleges that the defendants’ actions “have pitted children against children, while placing the health and safety of medically vulnerable children with disabilities in danger” — a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Shelby County suit also cites the ADA. The injunction granted today only applies to students in Shelby County.

Meanwhile, parents in Knox County have also filed suit along similar grounds.

WBIR has more:

The mothers of four disabled or medically compromised Knox County students and two Knox County teachers say it’s imperative that the county impose a mask mandate for children and that the governor’s order allowing parents to opt out of such a measure be halted.

The mothers are suing Gov. Bill Lee and the Knox County Board of Education in U.S. District Court. The case is being heard in Greeneville by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer.

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Judge: Lee’s Action on Masks Interferes with Safe Access to Schools

A federal judge today blocked Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt-out of mask mandates in schools.

WTVC-NewsChannel9 has more:

U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman issued the preliminary injunction after parents of students with health conditions argued that the Republican governor’s executive order endangered their children and hurt their ability to attend in-person classes by allowing others to opt-out of a mask mandate

In the ruling, Lipman wrote that the ability to safely access schools was a guaranteed right and that the executive order impedes this right.

“Plaintiffs offered sufficient evidence at this stage to demonstrate that the Executive Order interferes with Plaintiffs’ ability to safely access their schools,” the judge wrote.

Chalkbeat has additional reporting:

“It is that unmasked presence that creates the danger to these plaintiffs,” she wrote. “Universal masking is a reasonable accommodation that the governor’s executive order refuses to make available to schools, school systems and, in this case, the Shelby County Health Department.”

Friday’s ruling only affects Shelby County, where the executive order was in effect from Aug. 16 to Sept. 3, when it was blocked by the court’s temporary restraining order. Gov. Bill Lee’s order still stands in other counties.

“The public interest certainly recognizes the rights of parents,” she said, “but a universal masking requirement to protect students’ health does not significantly impact their ability to direct their education any more than would a uniform policy or requiring that students receive certain vaccinations before attending school.”

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Teaching Vacancies Up in Shelby County

The number of teaching position vacancies in Shelby County has increased since the start of the school year, reports Chalkbeat:

The Memphis district started the school year with 217 unfilled teaching jobs on Aug. 9, and that number has grown to 227 as of Monday, the district’s human resources chief, Yolanda Martin, said. That represents a dramatic increase in vacancies from around this time last year, when the district had just 63 unfilled positions as of the first day of school.

The rise in openings follows a wave of teacher resignations. Since May, 367 district educators have resigned from their positions, Martin told school board members during a committee meeting on Monday. The district saw a similar figure last year: 389 teachers resigned during the 2019-20 school year.

Normally, I’d write about teacher pay (which is abysmal in TN) or remind readers that COVID-19 has been especially demanding. I might point out the repeated warnings about a teacher shortage. Or, note that all the “disruption” sought by so called “ed reformers” is really disruptive – to kids, teachers, schools, and families.

But, I’m just going to stop. The story is there. Teachers are leaving. The job is incredibly challenging. And there have been people shouting about this crisis coming for years now.

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Knox County’s Thomas Announces Retirement

Knox County Director of Schools Bob Thomas announced last week that he will be retiring at the end of this school year (June 2022).

The Knoxville News-Sentinel has more:

Knox County Schools superintendent Bob Thomas will retire June 30, 2022, he announced to families Friday evening. 

“In discussions with my family over the summer, I made the decision to retire on June 30, 2022,”

Thomas took the helm in April 2017 after a tumultuous time for the district. Before being named superintendent, he had worked as an assistant superintendent since 1990. Before that, he was a teacher at Bearden Junior High and Bearden High School. He also worked at Rule High School as an assistant principal and then principal.

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8 is Enough?

The Tennessee Lookout reports on the educators across the state who have died so far this school year from COVID-19. The count at the time of publication was 8, though getting an exact number is difficult because there is no central source keeping track of educator deaths related to the pandemic.

More:

At least eight Tennessee public school employees – three elementary school teachers, one pre-k assistant, a cafeteria worker, a bus driver and two high school teachers – have died since the school year began after contracting COVID-19. The total is an imperfect tally of a grim statistic that no one government agency or private entity is currently monitoring in a systematic way.

The educator deaths come as Gov. Bill Lee continues to attempt to stop mask mandates in local school districts. It’s also noteworthy that a number of districts around the state have closed recently in order to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Here’s how Tennessee Lookout went about determining the numbers so far:

The eight deaths were confirmed through family members, school staff, pastors, media reports and online obituaries. In each instance, the school employees had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the days or weeks prior to their deaths, and in each case there is no definitive answer on where someone contracted the virus. Individual schools cited privacy rules in declining to comment about the causes of death among their staff members.

The story is a grim tale in a year where state policy expressly prevents districts from using remote learning options in order to mitigate COVID spread. Not only has Gov. Lee taken action to attempt to stop mask mandates, but he also visits schools without wearing a mask because, in his words, he’s “vaccinated” and “feels safe.” Of course regardless of vaccination status, it is possible to transmit the COVID-19 virus.

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Rutherford County Adopts Mask Mandate in Schools

Rutherford County became the latest middle Tennessee school district to institute a mask mandate last week, with the measure taking effect on Monday (Sept. 13th). WPLN has more:

Just days after Rutherford County Schools failed to vote on an updated pandemic policy, the school board has adopted a temporary mask mandate. The policy goes into effect on Monday.

More than 10,000 students were quarantined for at least one day last week, as the county continues to exceed its previous winter highs. The county had 4,305 active cases on Friday and reached its one-day peak on Monday with 658 new cases.

Still, not everyone will be wearing masks. Due to Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order, parents will be allowed to exempt their children from mask mandates.

Rutherford joins Wilson, Williamson, and Davidson counties in adopting a mask mandate. While Sumner County was closed all last week due to the pandemic, there is currently no plan to implement a mask mandate there.

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