Two federal judges rule local Tennessee school districts can mandate masks

Two federal judges rule local Tennessee school districts can mandate masks
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Two federal judges in separate rulings Friday said that Tennessee school districts could implement mask mandates, despite GOP Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order stating that parents could opt out of the coronavirus requirements. 

In one of the decisions, U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer of the Eastern District of Tennessee granted a motion from a group of Knox County students and parents for a preliminary injunction against the executive order. 

The judge also instructed the school district to put a mask mandate in place in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits businesses, states and local governments and other entities from discriminating based on disability. 

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In a similar ruling, U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw of the Middle District of Tennessee said that schools in Williamson County and the Franklin Special School District could implement mask mandates. 

Three federal judges have now ruled against Lee’s order, with U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman previously blocking Lee’s measure in Shelby County by issuing a preliminary injunction last week. 

Lipman wrote in her ruling that the plaintiffs in the case presented evidence that Lee’s order allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates “interferes with Plaintiffs’ ability to safely access their schools.”

Tennessee is just one of several states to have come under fire for statewide bans on mask requirements, with local leaders and many parents, especially those of students with disabilities, concerned about the level of exposure to COVID-19 in schools. 

Those under the age of 12 are not yet able to get the vaccine. 

However, Lee and other Republican governors have continued to argue that wearing a mask should be a personal decision made by parents and their children. 

In response to the latest rulings Friday, Lee spokesperson Laine Arnold told the Nashville Tennessean that the governor “believes parents are best equipped to make decisions regarding their children's health and well being.” 

Arnold added that the governor’s office could not comment specifically on pending litigation. 

The Hill has reached out to Lee’s office for additional information. 

Tennessee, along with a group of other GOP-led states, have become the subject of Department of Education investigations into their statewide bans on school mask mandates. 

The federal agency’s Office for Civil Rights is specifically looking into whether the limits on local mask requirements is a form of discrimination against students with disabilities, who the office has noted are “at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”