By Kimberly Croese and Jonathan Matiz, The Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) – A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked a Tennessee law that severely restricts public schools from requiring masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and prevents local officials from making decisions about quarantines.
Noting that the law “provides no protection for students, let alone people with disabilities,” US District Judge Waverly Crenshaw noted that it could not be enforced until its appeal had been adjudicated in court.
The lawsuit was filed against the state on behalf of eight students ages 7 to 14 with disabilities who federal health officials consider to be at greater risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. The ruling also blocks a provision of the law that says local health and school officials cannot make their own quarantine decisions.
“It is also in the public’s interest to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Tennessee schools,” Crenshaw wrote in his ruling. “Defendants have made absolutely nothing to suggest that any harm would come from allowing individual school districts to determine what was best for their schools, just as they did before[the law]was enacted.”
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
After sweeping rules against COVID-19 requirements became law last month, a Nashville-based judge has closed school mask limits for plaintiffs from three counties in every federal court district in Tennessee.
Crenshaw had previously blocked Gov. Bill Lee’s now-defunct executive order requiring school districts to allow parents to choose their children from mask requirements when the new law is enacted. Lee, a Republican, let the withdrawal order expire when he signed the new law.
Under one part of the law, public schools and other government agencies will only be allowed to require masks if they are in a county with an average 14-day COVID-19 infection rate of at least 1,000 per 100,000 residents while the state is under a state of emergency. Currently, no county meets this strict requirement.
Meanwhile, the law also allows families to request accommodations for children with disabilities for one-to-one education where others who are within 6 feet of these students for more than 15 minutes wear school-provided face masks.
Furthermore, the law gave the state’s health commissioner sole authority over COVID-19 isolation, stripping schools and other entities of decision-making power.
Lee came under scrutiny for signing off on the legislation after an Associated Press report from his administration warned lawmakers that the bill violated federal law protecting people with disabilities and could put the state at risk of losing federal funds.
The Republican-controlled legislature ignored the advice and passed the bill anyway. Less than two weeks later, Lee signed it into law.
Prosecutors wanted the legal guidance via email to be included as evidence, while the state objected. In the end, Crenshaw decided that it was “not necessary to resolve this dispute,” saying that “it seems abundantly clear that lawmakers knew, or at least should have known, that passing the new law would jeopardize federal funds,” and that the governor knew as well.
Nashville school officials praised Crenshaw’s order, which they said they are still reviewing. Although the ruling now allows the district to reinstate their quarantine rules, a spokesperson for Metro Nashville Public Schools said that “there are no changes to our existing protocols or policies at this time.”
“Our goal has always been to maintain the ability to make decisions in the interest of the health and safety of all of our students, out of politics,” Sean Priested said in an email on Friday.
Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton criticized the matter.
“His decision was purely a policy-based judicial activity with complete disregard for personal liberties or scientific facts,” Sexton said in a statement.
“His rule also allows each school district to establish quarantine guidelines,” Sexton added. “This means hundreds of different guidelines set by local school boards rather than the uniform, evidence-based standards set by experts at the Department of Health.”
Public health experts say masks are a key virus prevention tool that is most effective when worn by a large number of people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has again recommended closed public places including schools, saying they do not pose health risks to children older than younger children.
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