NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Lawsuits have drawn mixed results in opposite ends of Tennessee for Gov. Bill Lee's order that lets parents opt out of school mask requirements, with a federal judge in East Tennessee declining to block the directive after another judge paused the order specifically for the state's largest county, which includes Memphis.
The legal fight over mask requirements and exemptions in schools comes at a critical point in Tennessee, which now ranks first in the country for new cases per capita, with about 1,585 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer in Knoxville denied a request from attorneys for three Knox County students with disabilities and their parents for a temporary restraining order against the Republican governor's executive order. The lawsuit claims the mask opt-out order violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
The judge ruled that, procedurally, the plaintiffs didn't file an affidavit or verified complaint, so they "have not demonstrated that they would suffer immediate and irreparable injury or loss." A hearing is scheduled next week over the lawsuit's request to block the executive order and require a mask mandate in Knox County Schools, where officials have voted against instituting one.
The early result runs counter to a ruling last week in West Tennessee, where U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman issued a temporary restraining order for the Shelby County schools after it was sought by the parents of two children with health problems. The temporary restraining order, which doesn't apply statewide, remains in effect until Sept. 17. A hearing on blocking the mandate while the case proceeds is scheduled for Thursday.
The Shelby County parents' lawsuit likewise claims Lee's order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits the exclusion of students with disabilities from public educational programs and activities. Shelby County's government also sued Lee in federal court over his order.
Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new COVID-19 cases has increased by 1,950.1, an increase of 30.7%, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
In the week of Aug. 29, 31.4% of all Tennessee COVID-19 cases were among children younger than 18, compared with 18.4% throughout the duration of the pandemic, state data shows. A variety of schools across the state have been temporarily canceling classes days at a time because of the spread of COVID-19. The outbreaks spurred state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn to announce late last month that classrooms and schools facing a surge in COVID-19 can request a temporary shift to remote instruction.
The state reported 3,776 current COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Tuesday, 67 of them being children. Meanwhile, Tennessee is eighth-worst among states for fully vaccinated people by total population, at 42.4%, compared with 53.2% nationally, according to federal data.
On Aug. 16, Lee signed a statewide order allowing parents to opt out of the requirement for nonmedical reasons. Hundreds of students have been attending classes without masks ever since.
School officials in Shelby County and Nashville moved forward with their mask requirements without the governor's broad opt-out option. In Nashville, District Attorney Glenn Funk even pledged not to prosecute teachers or school officials for enforcing their mask requirements without the governor's new required leniency.
Late last month, the U.S. Education Department opened civil rights investigations into five Republican-led states, including Tennessee, that have banned or limited mask requirements in schools, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.
Lee has argued that parents know what's best for their children while defending the mask mandate opt-out order.
"We think it's a great compromise that allows us to protect our kids and give parents freedom at the same time," Lee told reporters Tuesday.