Federal judge blocks Tennessee's law preventing schools from issuing mask mandates

A federal judge in Nashville on Friday temporarily blocked Tennessee from preventing schools from issuing mask mandates and from stripping local health and school officials of their ability to set COVID-19 quarantine policies.

U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw issued the 54-page ruling after the parents of students with disabilities in Tennessee schools filed a lawsuit last month challenging the new law.

Crenshaw wrote that it is in the "public’s interest to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Tennessee’s schools."

"Defendants have proffered absolutely nothing to suggest that any harm would come from allowing individual school districts to determine what is best for their schools, just as they did prior to the enactment" of the new state law, Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw Ruling by USA TODAY Network on Scribd

As it stands, Crenshaw wrote, the new law "offers no protection to students, let alone those that are disabled."

What's worse, the judge wrote, the new state legislation honors federal law "more in its breach than in its observance."

"This does not serve the public interest," he said. "Allowing children to safely attend school does."

Kindergartner's Lauren Stevenson adjusts her face mask before entering the Inglewood Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Metro Nashville Public Schools students in grades K-4 and pre-K have returned to elementary schools in-person learning for the first time since Thanksgiving.
Kindergartner's Lauren Stevenson adjusts her face mask before entering the Inglewood Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Metro Nashville Public Schools students in grades K-4 and pre-K have returned to elementary schools in-person learning for the first time since Thanksgiving.

Gov. Bill Lee signed a comprehensive legislative package, passed in the dead of night during a late-October special session, aimed at curtailing the power local agencies have over COVID-19 restrictions. He also ended the COVID-19 state of emergency in Tennessee.

"For children with disabilities, this is obviously an important decision," said attorney Justin Gilbert, who represents some of the families in the lawsuit. "But we can’t lose sight of what we are really fighting — an ever-changing pandemic, not each other. This requires some short-term inconveniences to stay healthy long term. This ruling helps us get there."

A spokesperson for the attorney general's office, which represented the state in court, did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Lee's office declined comment, citing pending litigation.

But House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, slammed the judge's decision, calling it "judicial activism."

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, "obviously disagrees" with Crenshaw's ruling, spokesperson Adam Kleinheider said.

“The law was carefully designed to balance public health and personal freedom without violating anyone’s rights," Kleinheider said in a statement. "Lt. Governor McNally is confident the attorney general will appeal and is hopeful the state will ultimately prevail and that the legislation will be upheld.”

'State law must yield to federal law'

The new law prevents local governments and schools from issuing mask mandates except in the most dire circumstances. It also gives the state health commissioner the sole authority to implement quarantine policies.

Eight Tennessee children, via their parents, sued Lee and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn under the new law in November, just after the governor signed it. They argue the restrictions violate their children's rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Crenshaw wrote the families "have shown more than a mere probability of success on their ADA" and other claims.

"Because state law must yield to federal law when they conflict, they have established an overall likelihood of success on the merits," the judge wrote in his ruling.

Although he has urged people to wear masks, Lee's stance on mandates has been clear. He signed the new law on the heels of an executive order allowing parents statewide to opt their children out of any such mandate at their schools.

Lee has rescinded the mask order but it had already been blocked in three counties by three separate federal judges — including Crenshaw — based on similar ADA arguments.

The state appealed those court decisions on the governor's mask order but withdrew their appeals when the focus turned to defending the new law.

The state disagreed that the new law creates any unnecessary burden and danced away from the claim it is barring ADA-compliance. That's a decision of the individual principal, the state's attorneys said in court filings.

"The statute does not say where the Tennessee legislature obtained the authority to dictate what is reasonable under the ADA, nor do Defendants shed any light on the issue in their briefs," Crenshaw wrote.

But Sexton, who helped shepherd the new law through the legislature, argued Firday Crenshaw disregarded science by, for example, "invalidating" the effectiveness of N-95 masks.

The state law requires schools to provide N-95 masks to students upon demand. In his ruling, Crenshaw called the requirement one of several "hurdles" schools must cross before issuing a mask mandate.

"As has been clear since the start of the pandemic, N95 mask are not easy to find," Crenshaw wrote. "Nor are they cheap in relation to other masks."

Sexton said Crenshaw also allows local school boards to adopt different quarantine guidelines instead of a "uniform, evidence-based" standard from the state health department.

"I view this as the first step in a long battle against the progressives’ dystopian vision," Sexton said.

State misconstrued what families sought, judge says

In addition, the judge said the state misconstrued what the families were seeking by suggesting they are "clamoring for 'universal masking,' with the unstated premise being that what Plaintiffs really want is for each student in every Tennessee school to be masked."

Instead, the judge wrote, what the families seek is for a school district to "determine what is reasonable for its schools and students, and what is an appropriate

accommodation under the ADA, given the local COVID-19 rates and its impact on a particular community."

New issues around a potential threat to federal funding if allowed to go into effect also were raised in the newest lawsuit.

"Defense counsel have their duties, Plaintiffs understand that, but one must not pretend this is a narrow law extended in harmony with Plaintiffs’ federal statutory rights. The new state law was created to condemn and obstruct the very federal laws to which Plaintiffs have successfully resorted," the students' attorneys said.

The state has argued the students and their representatives are misinterpreting the law, which they say still gives leeway to schools to make health care decisions.

"Yet the injunction they propose is against the Act of their imagination, not as enacted," the attorney general's office noted in post-hearing briefings.

The students disagreed.

"Defendants ask for a 'wait and see' approach, as if Plaintiffs cannot read the law and its impending doom now," attorneys wrote.

Districts react to judge's order

Some school districts praised the judge's order.

Metro Nashville Public Schools, which implemented a new universal mask mandate for students and staff days before the beginning of the school year, has refused to budge despite the governor's executive order and the new state law.

Following Crenshaw's ruling Friday, spokesperson Sean Braisted said the district is reviewing the full order and agrees with the court's decision.

"Our goal all along has been to sustain the ability to make decisions in the best interest of the health and safety of all our students, free from politics," Braisted said by email.

Metro Schools Director Adrienne Battle's hope is that "with further vaccinations of our youngest learners, and a continued decline in transmission rates, we can soon remove mask requirements at Metro Schools in a safe, responsible manner," Braisted said.

The district had to rescind its COVID-19 quarantine policies last month also in accordance with the new state law, but the district has continued to require students with COVID-19 to self-isolate, something that not all districts have done.

It's unclear if Metro Schools will again require students or staff who might have been exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine.

Braisted said the district will review that aspect of the decision in the coming days.

Shelby County Schools, the state's largest district, has also maintained a mask mandate throughout the pandemic.

Even after Lee issued his executive orders, the district remained under a mask mandate enacted by the Shelby County Health Department.

On Nov. 30, the Shelby County Health Department issued a new order with language added in compliance with the new law, but still requiring most schools to require masks and follow isolation protocols for individuals who tested positive for COVID-19.

In the updated order, the health department clarified the mask and isolation requirement applies to schools and school districts that must comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Shelby County Schools district officials praised the court's decision alongside their Nashville counterparts Friday.

"In Shelby County Schools, we stand for SAFETY, as it remains our top priority. At this time, there are no changes to our mask requirement," spokesperson Jerica Phillips said in an email.

Meanwhile, many of the suburban school districts in Shelby County moved to mask optional policies.

Millington Municipal School District will continue with its mask optional protocol after the judge's ruling.

Germantown Municipal School District mandates masks for those vaccinated and unvaccinated while inside school buildings, according to the district's websites.

Collierville Schools strongly encourage but does not require masks. Similarly, Arlington Community Schools, Lakeland School System and Bartlett City Schools remain mask optional.

Those districts did not respond to requests for comment on the judge's decision by mid-afternoon Friday.

Knox County Schools still requires masks for students, staff and visitors. There about 370 mask exemptions across the district, according to a court document filed at the end of November. The new decision "does not directly affect the KCS situation," the district wrote to families Friday evening.

Reporters Dima Amro and Yue Stella Yu contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Federal judge blocks Tennessee's law preventing schools from issuing mask mandates