MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order late Friday blocking Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee from allowing parents to opt out of school mask requirements in Shelby County, the state's largest county that includes the city of Memphis.
U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman issued the temporary restraining order for the Shelby County schools after it was sought by the parents of two children with health problems. The parents argued in a federal lawsuit filed last week that the Republican governor endangered students with health conditions and hurt their ability to attend in-person classes by allowing parents to opt-out of a mask mandate via an executive order.
The temporary restraining order remains in effect until Sept. 17.
The students attend school in the Memphis suburbs of Collierville and Germantown, which began classes Aug. 9 under a universal mask requirement issued by the Shelby County Health Department. Lee resisted implementing a statewide mask mandate for schools, and he had initially left the decision to local officials. But on Aug. 16, he signed a statewide order allowing parents to opt out of the requirement for nonmedical reasons. Hundreds of students have been attending classes without masks ever since.
While local decision-making is important, "individual decision-making by a parent on issues regarding the health and well-being of their child is the most important," Lee said when he issued the order.
The Shelby County parents' lawsuit claims Lee's order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits the exclusion of students with disabilities from public educational programs and activities. Children with certain disabilities are more vulnerable to serious illness or death if they get COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.
Masks are a key coronavirus-prevention tool that are most effective when worn by a large number of people, public health experts say. The CDC has again recommended them for schools, saying they don't pose health risks for children older than toddler age. Vaccinations have not been authorized for children younger than 12.
State Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said last week that children made up 36% of the state's reported cases. Hundreds of students throughout Tennessee have been forced to quarantine or isolate due to the latest surge in coronavirus cases. Some schools have closed classrooms, while others have temporarily switched to virtual learning.
"The Governor has put the parents of medically vulnerable students in the position of having to decide whether to keep their children at home where they will likely suffer continued learning loss or risk placing them in an environment that presents a serious risk to their health and safety," the lawsuit states.
Tennessee's attorney general's office represented Lee and challenged the attempt to block the order. Lee's attorneys argued in court filings that the parents could have sought other relief in their individual cases, including filing an administrative claim with the state education department. The parents' arguments under the Americans with Disabilities Act were "doomed to fail," Lee's attorneys argued in a court filing.