Federal judge temporarily blocks new Tennessee law banning mask mandates in schools

Ruling came after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight Tennessee students with disabilities claiming their rights were violated under the ADA.
Medical masks
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A federal judge in Tennessee ruled Sunday that school districts can continue with mask mandates despite a new law banning them.

The ruling came after a lawsuit was filed Friday on behalf of eight Tennessee students with disabilities immediately after Gov. Bill Lee signed a sweeping COVID-19 bill into law.

The plaintiffs claimed their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act would be violated if school mask mandates were prevented.

The legislation Lee signed was passed during Tennessee's recent special session on COVID-19-related issues.

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw in Nashville wrote Sunday that “given the alleged conflict and the possible confusion this creates for schools in Tennessee, pending an expedited hearing, the parties shall maintain the STATUS QUO as it pertains to students with disabilities and their federally guaranteed rights as of Thursday, November 11, 2021.”

A status conference has been set for 1 p.m Monday on the matter. Lee and Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn were named in the lawsuit.

Lee had issued an executive order allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates, but that order has been blocked by judges in Shelby, Williamson and Knox counties.

The bill prevents government entities from requiring masks. Schools would need to go through an intricate process to require masks and only on a school-by-school basis, not district-wide.

A principal would need to request the action, and the state would need to have a health emergency declared along with a rolling 14-day average of 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents. In that case, a school could institute a 14-day mask mandate and would be required to provide children age 12 or older with an N95 mask, along with “age-appropriate” masks for children younger than 12.

Under the new law, a student with a disability would have to file a request with a school principal for an accommodation related to the disability.

“If the principal or president approves the request, then the school shall place the person in an in-person educational setting in which other persons who may place or otherwise locate themselves within six feet (6') of the person receiving the reasonable accommodation for longer than fifteen (15) minutes are wearing a face covering provided by the school,” the law says.

One of the plaintiffs in the new case also was one of the original two plaintiffs in a Williamson County case where Crenshaw blocked Lee’s executive order.