Mask Madness gets a court-approved breather

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When Knox County Schools students return to classes next week, they’ll no longer be required to wear face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Although the divisive political and legal battle over masks has yet to formally end, for the first time in months changing circumstances have led a federal judge to temporarily lift the so-called “mask mandate” that was triggered by a lawsuit filed last year. 

U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer granted a joint motion Monday to lift the mandate for 60 days while the Board of Education and the families who filed the lawsuit undergo mediation. 

“This means that when students and staff return to school on Monday, March 21, masks will not be required until further notice. Additionally, those who are attending school camps this week will not have to wear a mask,” said Knox Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas in a Monday email. 

“Please note that students and staff may still wear a mask if they choose,” he added. 

The lawsuit was filed in September by the parents of four disabled Knox County Schools students who argued their children’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were being violated by the system’s lack of a mandatory mask policy.

Greer — a Republican who was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush in 2003 — handed down a preliminary injunction requiring Knox County to re-institute the mask policy it used in 2020-21. He also blocked Governor Lee’s controversial Executive Order 84, which allows parents to exempt their children from covering their faces, from applying to Knox County during the litigation. 

Greer’s rulings triggered both praise and derision, with hundreds of parents and students opposed to the mandate taking part in numerous protests and acts of civil disobedience that include picketing, refusing to don masks in class, or even withdrawing from the public schools entirely.

Greer’s most recent ruling came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention downgraded Knox County’s threat level in the face of plummeting case numbers.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, at least 1,293 people have died from the disease in Knox County and 2,674 have been hospitalized, according to the local health department.

Published on March 15, 2022.