Students, faculty and staff returning to the University of Memphis campus next week are "strongly encouraged" to wear masks but are not required to do so, according to an email sent to students, faculty, and staff.
In the email, the university did not attribute the decision to state law, but it did include a link to the law. In December, a federal judge blocked portions of the exact law cited by the university.
The ensuing discussion, and the 54-page opinion accompanying the judge's decision, centered around K-12 education. Immediately after Gov. Bill Lee signed the law prohibiting most school mask mandates, K-12 students sued, alleging the law was unconstitutional and violated federal disability law. The opinion does not address universities' abilities to enact their own mask and quarantine policies.
But the opinion blocks sections of the law as they relate to schools. And the definition of "schools" within the portions of the blocked legislation includes public universities and higher education institutions.
Masks had been previously required on campus in accordance with previous Shelby County Health Department directives that required them in school settings since the beginning of the pandemic and throughout different surges.
The change in mask mandates comes after passage of state legislation that only allows schools and public institutions — like the University of Memphis — to enact mask mandates in extreme COVID-19 surges, defined as 1,000 infections or more for every 100,000 residents in a 14-day period.
In order for localities to enact a mandate, the law also stipulates Lee declare a state of emergency for COVID-19, which he has not done since omicron pummeled the state.
Since Jan. 1, Shelby County has racked up 3,159 infections per 100,000 individuals, or three times the threshold set by the state, according to county data.
In December, portions of that law were blocked by Middle Tennessee federal Judge Waverly Crenshaw, who ruled that stripping schools' and districts' abilities to enact mask mandates and quarantine policies violated the Students with Disabilities Act.
Students with cognitive or physical disabilities, the judge ruled, relied on communal masking to decrease chances of infection.
The basis of Crenshaw's ruling centers around federal compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; a federal law the University of Memphis is beholden to.
The ambiguity of the state legislation — and whether Crenshaw's order blocking it applies to universities — is one of multiple twists and turns higher education in Tennessee has faced when it comes to COVID-19 mitigation strategies they can, and in some cases, are required to implement.
In November of 2021, the University of Tennessee system canceled and then reinstated its own mask mandate within 24 hours. The chancellor dropped the mask mandate on Nov. 16, citing state law. The next day, the system reversed course, citing the risk of losing federal funding.
President Joe Biden issued an executive order in September requiring federal contractors to issue vaccine requirements, an order that applied to several colleges and universities that receive federal funding for grants and research.
Another new Tennessee law prohibited vaccine requirements by most institutions but allowed those at risk of losing federal dollars to apply for exemptions.
University of Tennessee at Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman explained that the system received an exemption from the state because complying with state laws would have jeopardized federal funding for the institution, per reporting from the Knoxville News Sentinel.
By early December, Biden's executive order was blocked by federal judges, and the Tennessee Comptroller's Office announced its exemptions were therefore null.
The University of Memphis had applied for an exemption and implemented its own vaccine requirement from mid-November, but backtracked in early December when it lost its exemption.
The Commercial Appeal asked the University of Memphis about federal compliance and blocked portions of the legislation that appear to provide the institution with an avenue to reinstate a mask mandate.
The legal department was not able to immediately comment.
As of Friday, the 7-day average of new COVID-19 cases rests at 2,206 new cases per day. On Thursday, the director of the Shelby County Health Department, Dr. Michelle Taylor, said a record-high number of patients, 770, were in Memphis-area hospitals with complications of COVID-19.
Data from South Africa and the United Kingdom suggests omicron's surge is short-lived compared to the alpha and delta strains of the virus; COVID-19 joint task force officials in Shelby County have cautioned that the virus may not have yet peaked in Shelby County.
Micaela Watts is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal and can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: University of Memphis drops COVID-19 mask mandate for spring semester