Three Knox County families filed lawsuits Thursday to lift Governor Bill Lee’s ban on mask mandates and require masks to be worn in the county public schools.
The proposed class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Knoxville against Governor Bill Lee and Knox Counties alleges that they violate federal law by creating unsafe learning environments for students with disabilities who are at higher risk of developing serious illnesses from COVID-19 are exposed.
Lee enacted Executive Order 84 last month, which allows parents to opt out of the mask requirement for school. The Knox County’s Department of Education voted against a universal mask requirement on Wednesday evening.
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“Governors’ orders and county board votes are important, but they do not override federal law,” attorney Justin Gilbert wrote in a statement to Knox News. “State and county laws must match federal laws, not the other way around.”
The complaint alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of a federal law called the Rehabilitation Act 1973.
The families say through attorneys Gilbert and Jessica Salonus that Lee and Knox County discriminate against students with disabilities like their children by failing to make “reasonable changes” to enable them to attend school safely.
734 COVID-19 cases were detected across the school system on Thursday. More than 90% of those affected are students. When KCS had a mask mandate in place last year, the district never exceeded the total of 277 cases of infection with the virus, including staff, in one day.
According to the lawsuit, students with disabilities are in fact excluded from participating in public education, while students without disabilities can attend school without “increased risk of serious injury or even death”.
The lawsuit isn’t the only way to challenge Lee’s orders.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Bureau is investigating whether Lee’s order discriminates against students who are at increased risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
Two Shelby County families also filed a similar lawsuit last week alleging the executive order violates ADA and Section 504.
Another, separate lawsuit on behalf of the Shelby County government argues that with the rampant Delta variant, more and more students must be quarantined until the majority of students can be vaccinated or the masking is uniformly adopted.