Federal judge turns down restraining order in mask case

As shown in this picture, angry parents have been protesting the Knox County Schools’ lack of a mandatory masking policy for several weeks to no avail. Some parents, however, have chosen to take their arguments to federal court. On Friday, they won a significant victory when a federal judge ordered that Knox County schools must now operate under a mask mandate. Photo by Moira Charnot.

A federal judge on Tuesday turned down a request for a temporary restraining order against Knox County and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee that would have opened the door for a mandatory masking policy in the public school system. 

The order was handed down by U.S. District Court Judge J. Ronnie Greer in a lawsuit filed by the parents of three disabled Knox County Schools students who argue their children’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have been violated by the lack of a mandatory mask policy in the school system.

The parents are asking Greer to order the schools “to enforce a mask mandate” and block Lee’s Executive Order 84, which allows parents to exempt their children from covering their faces. They are also asking that their case be granted class action status. 

They sought both an emergency restraining order and a preliminary injunction in their complaint, which was filed Friday at the federal courthouse in Knoxville. On Tuesday, however, Greer issued a two-page order denying the request for a restraining order. 

“Plaintiffs have not filed a verified complaint and have failed to attach an affidavit. As such, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated that they would suffer immediate and irreparable injury or loss, and their request for a temporary restraining order must be denied for this reason alone,” Greer wrote. 

Greer did, however, set a hearing next week to hear arguments on whether a preliminary injunction should be issued that would compel KCS officials to impose a mandatory masking policy and render Lee’s executive order moot.

The hearing is set for 9 a.m. Sept. 15 at the federal courthouse in Greeneville.

Also Tuesday, the number of cases in the schools that are being tracked by the Knox County Health Department seemed to drop dramatically from Friday, when there were 679 cases including 594 students and 85 employees.

There were only 331 cases in the schools on Tuesday, including 277 students and 54 staff members, according to the Health Department.

“I would say the decline is likely due to students and staff no longer in isolation combined with a possible delay in lab reporting,” KCS spokesperson Carly Harrington. 

The county’s two hardest-hit schools, Central High School and Austin-East Magnet High School, were moved to online learning this week and won’t resume in-person classes until Sept. 13. Harrington said that cases from both schools were included in the most recent data. 

Meanwhile, Knox County recorded at least 13 new deaths from COVID over the weekend, bringing the county’s death toll to 720 since the pandemic began, Health Department records show. There were an estimated 642 cases reported Tuesday, bringing the number of people with active infections to 5,562 men, women, and children.

Approximately 64,906 residents of Knox County have been infected since the pandemic began, according to the Health Department. 

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com. 

Published on September 8, 2021.