Federal judge blocks Tennessee from letting parents opt their kids out of school mask mandates

News & Politics

A federal judge on Friday blocked the Republican governor of Tennessee from requiring schools to allow parents to opt their kids out from mask mandates, arguing that the order makes schools unsafe for special needs children during the pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman issued a preliminary injunction against Gov. Bill Lee’s order after parents of students with health conditions sued, claiming their children were unable to attend in-person classes because some kids weren’t wearing face coverings, the Associated Press reports.

The parents’ lawsuit argues Lee’s executive order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bans schools from excluding students with disabilities from public education programs and activities. The argument says that by permitting some children to go maskless, disabled students and others with health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 are effectively excluded from attending class in-person because of the risk.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that children with underlying medical conditions are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 compared to those without such conditions.

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“It is that unmasked presence that creates the danger to these Plaintiffs,” Judge Lipman wrote.

“Plaintiffs offered sufficient evidence at this stage to demonstrate that the Executive Order interferes with Plaintiffs’ ability to safely access their schools,” she declared.

The injunction follows a temporary restraining order Lipman issued against Lee on Sept. 3, which prohibited schools from letting parents opt out of mask mandates. According to the AP, the injunction applies to seven public school districts in Shelby County, where the local health department implemented a universal mask requirement before the start of school on Aug. 9. There are 100,000 students in these districts, which include parts of Memphis.

“The Governor has put the parents of medically vulnerable students in the position of having to decide whether to keep their children at home where they will likely suffer continued learning loss or risk placing them in an environment that presents a serious risk to their health and safety,” the lawsuit asserts.

The Tennessee attorney general’s office unsuccessfully argued that parents have options for relief they could have pursued before filing a lawsuit against Lee’s order. State attorney Jim Newsom told the judge Individualized Education Programs run by the state education department are available to meet the needs of students with health conditions.

A similar lawsuit was filed in Florida against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order requiring school mask mandates to give parents an opt out. But in this case a federal judge on Wednesday denied a request from parents of disabled children to block DeSantis’ order, writing that parents should have pursued administrative claims before filing a lawsuit.

Last month, the Biden administration Department of Education opened civil rights investigations in five states, including Tennessee, to learn whether statewide restrictions on school mask mandates discriminate against students with disabilities.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona accused Republican governors of “putting politics over the health and education of the students” in his statement announcing the investigations.

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