Mask Mandate in Knox County Schools

When Knox County Schools declined to implement face-covering in schools, four families filed a lawsuit. As a result of the federal judge’s order in the pending case, students resumed wearing masks on Tuesday, Sep 28.

On Friday, Sep 24, a federal judge sent out an order to require that KCS implement a mask mandate. Additionally, this order does not allow the executive order opt-out that Tennessee governor Bill Lee issued in early September.  

In a letter sent out to parents, KCS superintendent Bob Thomas wrote, “Beginning Monday, Sept. 27, all our students, employees, and visitors will be required to wear a face covering when indoors at one of our facilities or riding a school bus or shuttle, until further notice.”

While parents continue to make noise on both sides of the issue, students’ voices often become overlooked. At Central, a student-conducted survey during the first days of the renewed requirement reveals students’ opinions on the mask mandate. 50% of respondents claimed to have worn a mask at least some of the time before the mandate. 58.3% were in favor of the mask mandate and 33.4% had mixed feelings. Only 8.3% directly opposed it.

A photo of the results of one survey question

On the survey, when asked their opinions and thoughts on the mandate, students revealed mixed feelings. “I think the mask mandate is very important in keeping us all safe, especially since Tennessee has shown (an) insane amount of cases,” one student wrote. “I think (it’s) something you have to suck up to better others,” said another. One student simply wrote, “Just wear the mask, it isn’t a big deal.”

Additional responses are mostly neutral. “I personally don’t care,” said a student. “I just (want to) come to school and learn and see my friends.” 

“I don’t mind it, but I’m not exactly opinionated on the matter,” said another.

“I don’t enjoy wearing a mask because it tends to irritate my skin and my eyes which can be very distracting throughout a day,” one student wrote.

On Sep 29, KCS submitted a request with exhaustive list of potential mask exemptions for a judge to review. The list contains 60 items:

  • ADHD
  • Allergies to pollen, mold, or dust
  • Angelman’s syndrome
  • Anxiety
  • Any medical exemption from a medical provider
  • Asthma
  • Asthma with hypoxia
  • Auditory processing disorder
  • Autism
  • Bi-Polar disorder
  • Brain tumors
  • Cardiac syncope
  • Central venous catheter
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Chiari malformation
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Congenital heart failure
  • Congenital hypothyroidism
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Convergence insufficiency
  • Deaf and hearing-impaired Students and Staff
  • Staff working directly with deaf students be allowed to use a face shield in place of a mask.
  • Deaf interpreters
  • Face shields in place of a mask for Deaf and Hearing Impaired
  • Developmental delay
  • Down syndrome
  • Depression
  • Exercise induced laryngeal obstruction
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Dyslexia
  • Facial dermatological conditions
  • Eosinophilic esophagitis
  • GERD
  • Facial deformities
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Long COVID-19
  • Hunter syndrome eczema
  • Multiple combined disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome
  • Medical exemption from psychiatrist
  • Panic attack
  • Muscae volitantes
  • Partial airway obstruction
  • Neurocardiogenic syncope
  • Physical disabilities including paralysis
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Partial trisomy 9q
  • Psychotic disorder NOS
  • Post-thrombotic syndrome
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Pre-K students
  • Sensory processing disorders
  • Pulmonary diseases (e.g., epiglottitis, COPD etc.)
  • Syringomyelia
  • Schizophrenia
  • Speech impediment
  • Speech delay and other challenges
  • Spinal syrinx
  • Unresponsive individuals

However, until this request is approved or denied, Superintendent Thomas’s letter instructs that only people with “autism or a tracheotomy” are exempt. However, “students with autism who can wear a face covering are encouraged to do so.”

Additionally, school was cancelled on Mon, Sep 27. In a message sent to families on Sunday evening, Superintendent Thomas wrote, “We will be using this time to work with our administration and staff . . . to make sure that schools are ready for students on Tuesday.”

One of Bob Thomas’s messages to parents

While many are thrilled that Knox County will be following CDC guidelines, others are furious. 

A curious reader doesn’t have to go much further than the comments of the Knox County Schools Twitter account to see political controversy from KCS families. Anti-masker parents on social media threatened to bring protests to KCS, much to the aggravation of KCS employees who did not make the order. 

“We recognize that this is a sensitive topic and that there are a wide variety of strongly held feelings about COVID-19 mitigation measures,” Bob Thomas wrote in his letter. “At the same time, I want to make very clear that we are required to implement this order.”

Without an offical response to the KCS request for exemptions, all students, staff and stakeholders remain interested to watch future developments in the case and what they might mean for the 2021-2022 school year.

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