More protests planned – KCS fights mask order

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Ava Sammons and Alisha Sammons make anti-mandate signs before attending a protest at West Valley Middle School this week. Photo submitted by Kellye Sammons.

Knox County Schools’ first week under a federal court-ordered mask mandate to fight COVID-19 looks like it’s ending with both sides unwilling to back down an inch.

Since classes resumed Tuesday, hundreds of students have been isolated on a daily basis for refusing to wear masks, the school system has argued the court order is a “manifest injustice,” and September ended as the deadliest month since the pandemic began.  

On Thursday, officials said that 550 students from across the district were isolated from their classmates: 183 elementary, 222 middle, and 144 high schoolers. 

“These numbers reflect how many students showed up to school but refused to comply with the mask mandate and stayed at school,” said KCS spokesperson Carly Harrington. “We call parents but that doesn’t mean they will come pick them up.”

Anti-mandate groups like Knox County Parents Against Mandates have been using social media platforms — mainly Facebook — to swap stories alleging harassment and organize protests. 

Today, for instance, they are asking parents to let their children stay home from school as part of a “Freedom Friday” protest. 

Anti-mandate activist Terry Winkles said he plans on keeping his children, Kyleigh and Jacob Winkles, home today.

“We do plan to take part in it. The reason is to show the numbers for what they really are. Our kids have been segregated for not masking but still counted present for school. This isn’t hurting the system,” Winkles explained.

“Taking kids completely out gets noticed,” he continued. “The other side did a ‘sick out’ as well…. Student attendance data directly impacts school funding. In Tennessee, districts receive some money based on the Average Daily Attendance data.”

Winkles said he hopes that hitting the school district where it hurts — the pocketbook — will show that the anti-mandate movement can shake up the system enough to change it.

Kellye Sammons, who is raising five children, explained that two of her daughters enrolled at West Valley Middle School have chosen to stay home this morning. 

“There’s power in numbers and they need to see just how many stand with us on this,” she said. “A lot of families are with us on this, but for many reasons haven’t been able to take a stand with us. Whether it’s parents working, kids not wanting to be treated the way these kids have been by faculty, or they cannot stand in the heat because of medical issues. But a lot are saying tomorrow they want us to see we are not alone and they’re going to help because they’re able to.”

Sammons said that there’s been progressively more hostility shown to anti-mandate protesters over the course of the week.

At one point, while Sammons and her daughters protested with signs by West Valley Middle School, they were verbally accosted by a school bus full of unruly children, she said.

“They were flipping us off and cussing us out and the bus driver was doing nothing. One kid even said, ‘I hope you guys die from Covid and I will laugh when you do,’” she said. “We just waved and told the kids we loved them and have a great day.”

She continued: “It’s gone a little bit rougher every day. It started out amazingly at the school with support and kindness from staff, to our kids being treated like criminals and having grown adults be so rude and dismissive to them…. But on a positive note, we have had more and more join us at our protests and so much support from our community.”

As Winkles pointed out, pro-mask activists let their children stay home early last month as part of a “Sick Out” protest.

One of the organizers of that protest, Eric Moore, said Thursday that he absolutely supports “Freedom Friday” even if he disagrees with the cause championed by its creators.

“I will always support civil protests from people, even if I disagree with what their protest supports. I feel it’s a fundamental freedom and encouraging protests in those ways helps prevent people from needing to escalate,” he said. “I’d love to see everyone involved in either side modeling civil behavior for our children, who are watching and learning.”

Moore said he wasn’t surprised to see that only a few hundred anti-mandate protesters had taken part in actions thus far.

“I think the mask mandate has been an important change to help bring safety to our schools,” he said. “Any such mandate, as with any school rule, is only as strong as it is enforced and communicated within the building. I understand there is variance there, unsurprisingly. But overall, it’s been a positive and needed change.”

The fact that only a few hundred children out of the 60,000 or so students enrolled at KNS schools — plus less than 20 staff members — have actively protested is no reason to minimize the impact they’ve had on the system’s operations, argued Knox County’s lawyers in an attempt to reverse the court order.

The lawsuit that led to the order was filed early this month by the parents of four disabled Knox County Schools students who argue their children’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have been violated by KCS’s lack of a mandatory mask policy. The parents are also seeking to block Lee’s controversial Executive Order 84, which allows parents to exempt their children from covering their faces. 

Last week, U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer — a Republican who was appointed by George W. Bush in 2003 — handed down a temporary order requiring Knox County to re-institute the mask policy it used in 2020-21 until the lawsuit is resolved. Greer also blocked the enforcement of Executive Order 84, but Gov. Lee announced yesterday that he was extending the order despite the ruling made by Greer and similar decisions made by judges in other parts of the state. 

The attorneys representing the Knox County Board of Education (KCBOE) — David M. Sanders and Amanda Lynn Morse of the Knox County Law Director’s office — have attacked Greer’s ruling on multiple fronts, arguing that implementing it will cause harm to disabled students throughout the system. 

“The staff were instructed in how the mask mandate would work and provided guidance on how to address student and staff resistance to masking. Staff were informed to follow the protocol developed during the last school year… Staff that refused to wear a mask would be given a verbal warning and, if the refusal continued, would be sent home without pay,” they said in a motion filed this week.

“At the same time, a local Facebook group started called Knox County Parents Against Mandates. It currently has over 3,500 members. During the time the group was public, there were numerous posts organizing protests or suggesting that students attend schools unmasked as a form of protest,” the motion says.

“On September 28, 2021, over 700 students, including over 200 elementary school aged children, refused to wear a mask at school and were isolated in large rooms until their parents picked them up from school,” the motion continues. “Approximately 16 staff members (including at least ten teachers and five paraprofessionals) were sent home without pay for refusing to wear a mask, and although this number may seem small, each teacher is responsible for a classroom of 20-25 students and a paraprofessional often provides direct support for multiple students (at least three of these staff members, a teacher and two paraprofessionals, have resigned rather than comply with the court-ordered mandate).”

The motion concludes: “Therefore, approximately 200 students were without their teacher or paraprofessional that day. In one day, this Court’s order has negatively impacted the educational rights of almost 1,000 students. As this brief is being filed on September 29, 2021, there are approximately 578 students refusing to wear a mask, this number may change as more information is received by KCBOE staff. At this time, only one of the staff members sent home yesterday has returned to work. It is evident that parental and student resistance to the Court’s order will continue.”

Sanders and Morse also took issue with the section of Greer’s order where he said that only autistic students and students with tracheotomies would be exempt from the requirement to wear masks.

“KCBOE has many students who were exempted under last year’s mask mandate policy for various medical conditions other than autism or tracheotomies. Examples include hearing and speech disorders, developmental delays, Down Syndrome, asthma, dermatological issues, behavioral issues, and heart conditions,” they wrote.

“In fact, most of those students have in-place Individual Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 plans that document their disability and KCBOE made individualized determinations that a mask exception was an appropriate accommodation for them,” they explained. “At a bare minimum, if KCBOE implements the order as written, it will be faced with violating either the Order or students’ (and perhaps employees’) rights under the ADA and Section 504 because KCBOE will be forced to deny them their previously agreed to reasonable accommodation. KCBOE doubts that this was the Court’s intent, but the Order contains no further exceptions.”

At least 140 people died locally from COVID-19 in the past month alone, making September the deadliest month in Knox County since the pandemic began, according to Health Department statistics.

Despite the bleak milestone, local COVID infections have been dropping after a mid-September peak. 

Since the pandemic began in early 2020, at least 841 people in Knox County have died and 1,796 have been hospitalized out of 74,506 who have been infected, according to the county Health Department. 

There were 281 cases in the school system Thursday, including 234 students and 47 staff members out of an estimated 2,972 active infections countywide, according to the KCS COVID dashboard.

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

Published on October 1, 2021.