Despite one local dissent vote, school mask lawsuit dropped

A federal lawsuit, which had been forcing Knox County students, staff and teachers to wear face coverings since September, has finally come to an end.

Knox County Board of Education met on and off for nearly seven hours Monday, April 18, with mediators, the plaintiffs who initially brought the suit and attorneys for both sides. After several back-and-forth offers and counter offers, the plaintiffs agreed to drop the case entirely and assess no blame in exchange for $145,000 in attorneys fees.

Knox County students began the 2021-22 school year under a BOE-determined mask optional policy. However, Judge Ronnie Greer, senior U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Tennessee, ruled in favor of four plaintiffs of medically compromised children who alleged the lack of COVID-19 precautions did not accommodate their children as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Greer granted a reprieve of sorts in March, temporarily removing the mandate while mediation was pursued.

“I’m thankful we have gotten control of our school system again, but it was painful to have to spend taxpayer money to settle this case,” said Board member Susan Horn, who represents the 5th District (which includes Farragut) and was among the seven on BOE voting to settle. 

“That is a lot of money that could have been much better spent in our classrooms,” she added. “Many people in my district were opposed to agreeing to pay to settle, but in the end, I decided it was worth it since I was very concerned about how the case might proceed and be prolonged in the courts.  

“Our students and staff deserve to go forward without the threat of masks hanging over their heads.”

Evetty Satterfield was the lone BOE member unable to attend the mediation session, while BOE District 6 Board member Betsy Henderson was the lone vote against settling the suit.

“This lawsuit has caused so much anger and frustration in our community,” Henderson said.  “It has made this year very hard on our children, families and staff. From the beginning, I have said this was a massive overreach from a federal judge. Judicial activism at its worst.  I’m so glad it’s over, but I’m disgusted by the fact that the plaintiffs’ attorneys used this case as a huge payday.

“The ADA says we have to provide students with disabilities a ‘reasonable accommodation,’” she added. “It was never reasonable to mask 60 (thousand) children for the fictional benefit of four children. This was never about health and safety, but about power and control.”

As for the future of possible similar legalities, Horn said, “there is concern it could happen again, but we have more knowledge than we did before, and I would hope, no matter what, that things would be different.”