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Judge decides in favor of students with special needs, mask opt-out halted in Williamson County

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Posted at 6:49 PM, Sep 26, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Starting Monday, students will have to wear a mask in public schools in Williamson County even if their parents opted them out for non-religious or medical reasons.

U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. made the call on Friday after hearing from students with disabilities.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of a 13-year-old girl with down syndrome and a 7-year-old girl with Type 1 diabetes argued Williamson County school buildings and buses were not safe for students with special needs.

In the judge's decision issued on Friday, it said as many as 13,231 children, nearly 32% of the student body, have opted out of Williamson County’s mask mandate and approximately 200 Franklin Special School District students, or 10% of the student body, have similarly opted out.

In August, Governor Bill Lee issued an executive order allowing parents and guardians to opt their student out of school mask mandates for any reason at all.

Stating the COVID-19 cases in Williamson County, including at plaintiffs’ schools, along with the significant number of students who have opted out, the judge ruled that the special needs community has been denied access to a safe, in-person education.

Parents are now prohibited from opting out of either the Williamson County Board of Education or Franklin Special School System’s mask mandates on a purely voluntary basis. The injunction is in effect until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, October 5 when Lee's executive order is set to expire.

Conservative parent group Moms 4 Liberty Williamson County sent an email to subscribers after the judge's order. In the email, the group wrote "it is a parent's right to make this decision for their child, and not that of the school board or an activist judge."

The Franklin Special School System sent the following statement to parents on Sunday night:

As a result of a ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on Friday, September 24, students will no longer be able to opt out of the FSSD mask requirement using Governor Bill Lee’s Executive Order 84. We will begin enforcing the judge’s ruling in our schools, buses and district offices on Tuesday, September 28, 2021. If your child has previously been granted a religious or medical exemption, those exemptions will continue to be honored. The same applies to staff. If your child has been excused from wearing a mask due to the voluntary parental opt-outs, that excuse will no longer be valid beginning Tuesday, September 28. If you do not have a face covering for your child, one can be provided at the school. The same pertains to staff and volunteers.

Friday’s ruling is in regard to a lawsuit filed against the State of Tennessee, Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District. The court issued a Temporary Restraining Order that blocks Gov. Lee's executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of the district's mask mandates. The Court also ordered the FSSD and Williamson County Schools to enforce their mask mandates without the provisions of Executive Order 84, saying to do otherwise would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The judge ruled that a universal mask mandate is a reasonable accommodation required for access to educational services for individuals with disabilities.

Williamson County Schools sent the following email to parents on Friday:

Effective immediately

On Friday afternoon, September 24, in regard to a lawsuit filed against the State of Tennessee, Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee issued a Temporary Restraining Order enjoining Governor Bill Lee from enforcing Executive Order 84, which allowed parents to opt out of the Williamson County Board of Education’s mask mandate on a purely voluntary basis. The Court also ordered the district to enforce its mask mandate without allowing voluntary parental opt-outs such as those allowed under Executive Order 84. The Court found that to do otherwise would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, stating that a universal mask mandate is a reasonable accommodation required to allow disabled students access to Williamson County Schools.

If your child has previously been granted a religious or medical exemption, those exemptions will continue to be honored. The same applies to staff. Please consult with your school nurse if you have any questions related to your child’s health.

If your child has been excused from wearing a mask due to the voluntary parental opt-outs that have been granted under Executive Order 84, your child will be required to wear a face covering to school effective immediately. The same pertains to staff and volunteers.