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Judge temporarily halts governor’s mask opt out order in Williamson County

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Bill Lee (copy)

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a Williamson County Republican Party dinner.

A federal judge issued a temporary injunction Friday blocking the enforcement in Williamson County of Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order that allowed parents to opt their children out of public school mask requirements. Now, families can no longer choose to voluntarily opt out of the mask requirements at Williamson County Schools or Franklin Special School District except through avenues provided by the districts.

This decision, issued by U.S. District Court Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, applies only to Williamson County but marks the third wrench in the governor’s order statewide since its establishment on Aug. 16. Two other federal judges have made similar determinations concerning Shelby and Knox counties.

The most recent court order resulted from a lawsuit filed by two Williamson County mothers on behalf of their daughters — WCS and FSSD students who have disabilities — claiming that the WCS and FSSD mask mandates overlaid by the governor’s order “have nullified the rights of students with disabilities to enjoy safe, fundamental, and non-discriminatory access to their public institutions” and have, thus, violated the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The judge’s opinion weighs in favor of the plaintiffs, who argued in their complaint that not only they but all students with disabilities or underlying health conditions are at higher risk of severe illness or even death from COVID-19.

“As a result of the Governor’s Executive Order No. 84, Plaintiffs and their putative class are unable to enjoy educational services, programs, and activities without placing their lives at risk due to their disability,” Crenshaw wrote.

The judge further ordered that WCS and FSSD “enforce their mask policies without exception for” the governor’s order. Currently, both districts have districtwide indoor mask requirements in place until Jan. 19 for WCS and Jan. 11 for FSSD. At WCS, families may file for health or religious exemptions, which are reviewed by the district.

The district shared on Monday that health and religious exemptions filed prior to the governor’s order will continue to be honored, and new exemption requests will be “evaluated.” No further details were given, as the district shared that its staff was still working “through the operational aspects of the new court order.”

The court order will remain in place through Oct. 5 (unless extended by the court) pending an evidentiary hearing on that same day. This is also the same day the governor’s order is set to expire.

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