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Tennessee State Capitol / Tennessee Lookout photo by John Partipilo

Tennessee's top special education official has been demoted after testifying in court that universal mask requirements in schools would make her job easier.

Gov. Bill Lee has issued — and extended — an executive order attempting to override local school districts when they require masks to impede the spread of COVID-19.

Lee's order requires a parent opt-out for such mandates, but families of children with disabilities who are susceptible to the pandemic have sued, saying his order endangers their children and violates their rights. Three judges have blocked his order, from Memphis to Knoxville.

Theresa Nicholls served as assistant commissioner for special populations at the Department of Education until last week, when she was abruptly reassigned to work in the department's office of general counsel.

Nicholls is well-known within the state's special education and disability circles but did not play a very public role until last month, when she served as a witness in a federal court trial over Lee's school mask policy in Shelby County.

The hearing was to consider a preliminary injunction against Lee's mask opt-out order in a lawsuit brought by three Shelby County parents of students with disabilities or conditions that leave them immunocompromised.

(READ MORE: Third judge blocks Gov. Lee's mask opt out in schools)

Nicholls testified about the extensive accommodations provided to students with disabilities since the pandemic began, the Commercial Appeal reported. In response to questions from the parents' attorneys, she also testified that Lee had not consulted with her before issuing his executive order.

Lawyers asked Nicholls if her job would be made easier if everyone was masked, according to the Commercial Appeal report.

"I think my job would be easier in a lot of cases," she responded. "Sure, there's a lot of things that would make my life easier."

After her testimony, U.S. District Court Judge Sheryl Lipman issued a preliminary injunction halting Bill Lee's mask opt-out executive order in Shelby County. In her order, Shipman wrote:

"Without consulting his own education experts on the needs of children with disabilities and going against the public health guidance of local and national medical and public health entities, Governor Lee took an action that adversely affected the right of disabled children to access public education."

Nicholls' reassignment came as a shock to disability advocates, educators and parents who work with her closely to carry out day-to-day work of implementing federal grants and ensuring children with disabilities are getting legally required services. Her standing meetings were canceled on short notice.

No one from the department has formally communicated her departure with stakeholders — including major federal grant recipients, who regularly work with Nicholls — about her reassignment. The department, however, did quickly post a new organization chart that excludes Nicholls.

Child advocates described Nicholls, who has worked at the department for eight years, as an accessible and able leader. They said they were shocked to learn she left the division and are concerned about the stability of their work with the state going forward. Five advocates who spoke with the Tennessee Lookout did so on the condition they would not be identified because they want to continue to have a good relationship with the department.

Nicholls also testified in a similar case brought by Knox County parents. But she did not make an appearance in a hearing in another case challenging the governor's executive order in Williamson County. That hearing took place Tuesday, after Nicholls was reassigned.

A Department of Education spokesperson said that the "realignment will ensure that supports for students with disabilities permeates every decision we make.

(READ MORE: Few school options for kids with disabilities during COVID add stress for parents)

"This has been a challenging year that has changed how we work and even where we work," spokesperson Brian Blackley said in an email. "It has exacerbated pre-existing achievement gaps for students with disabilities and other at-risk student populations. This has necessitated an organizational restructure to adapt to current conditions. After considerable thought and discussion, we are excited about the opportunity to embed special education resources and expertise across key offices and teams to align with their work."

Nicholls declined to comment.

Nicholls will be replaced by Jennifer Jordan, according to an email by a Tennessee schools superintendent outlining the changes, obtained by the Lookout.

Jordan previously served as senior director of instruction and intervention at the department. Her new title is assistant commissioner of special education and intervention programs. The email outlined other changes: the Early Childhood Transition Team, which focuses on the needs of young children with disabilities, will be removed entirely from the Department of Education — a significant transition that has also gone unannounced. That team will now be housed within the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

(READ MORE: U.S. Education Department investigating Tennessee, four other states over mask mandate bans)

The email said that Nicholls' new role will be to serve students with disabilities as a program expert on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a law that guides special education.

The demotion comes from the same administration that fired its top immunization official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, after she promoted vaccines for children 12 and up.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

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