Two Tennessee federal judges have struck down at Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order that allows families to opt out of school mask warrants, ruling Friday in separate cases that local districts may require face coverings to protect children with disabilities during that legal challenges progress through the courts.
This was the third time in the past two weeks that a judge has stayed the governor’s order after parents of special education students sued accusing the order of breaking Americans law. disabled.
Mr Lee is one of many Republican governors who have used their executive powers to prevent school districts from implementing mask policies, playing with Tory voters who view the rules as a violation of parental rights and personal freedoms .
The debate over masks in schools has become highly politicized, as tens of millions of students across the country have returned to class. Texas, Florida, Arizona and Iowa are among the states where governors have attempted to ban mask requirements in direct opposition to local principals who want them.
President Biden’s administration has entered the fray. Federal Department of Education is investigating orders issued by governors of seven states, including Tennessee, to determine whether allowing parents to ignore mask warrants for their children discriminates against students disabled 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 voted against requiring masks in its schools, against advice from local and federal health officials. The next day, families with children with disabilities filed a class action lawsuit, arguing that the school board’s decision failed to create a safe, in-person learning environment for children during the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer of the Eastern District of Tennessee on Friday ruled that Knox County schools must enforce a mask rule to help protect children with health problems while the trial is in progress. He forbids the governor to impose his order until the legal battle is settled.
A similar ruling was issued by U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw, of the Middle District of Tennessee, who said Friday that schools in Williamson County and the Franklin Special School District could enforce mask warrants, also blocking the order. of the governor.
Both school systems have strict mask policies in place until January next year to combat the surge in infections in their districts, but Mr Lee’s order, issued on Aug. 16, has forced school officials to change their rules to let students give up masks, no questions asked. Once again, parents of special education students have taken legal action, arguing that letting some students ignore the mask rules violates 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 prevented children with health problems from going to the hospital. safe school during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Lee’s order is due to expire on Oct. 5, and he told reporters he has yet to decide whether to renew it. A spokeswoman for the governor did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Justin Gilbert, an attorney representing parents who have sued Knox, Williamson and Franklin counties, said three federal judges “saved children from an executive order based on the politics of wedge issues, not on Science “.
Jack Begg contributed to the research. Erica Green contributed reporting.