Judge blocks Lee’s mask opt-out order in Shelby County schools

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A federal judge Friday issued a preliminary injunction that blocks Gov. Bill Lee from enforcing an order allowing parents to opt their children out of wearing masks in Shelby County schools.

Friday’s ruling extends an existing temporary restraining order that was set to expire. The preliminary injunction will remain in effect until a final decision is made in a federal case brought by several Shelby County parents.

“It means that children and teachers in Shelby County are safer today. It means vulnerable children can safely attend school,” said Brice Timmons, attorney for the parents.

The lawsuit claims Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of mask mandates in school goes against the Americans with Disabilities Act, putting immuno-compromised children and others with disorders at risk.

One of the plaintiffs, a Houston Middle School student with disabilities, reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 after being exposed to an unmasked student who was sick with COVID-19.

Ashely Ellis, who has several relatives attending school in Shelby County Schools, believes that the judge made the right decision and hopes others will understand what’s most important.

“I think one way or another, the arguments, the fights, the taking sides all of that just needs to kind of die down and we need to think about the bigger picture here,” Ellis said. “The bigger picture here is saving lives.”

Lee issued the Executive Order a few days into the school year that allowed parents in Tennessee to opt out of masks for their children in schools.

“Right now, some of the greatest frustration is occurring in our K-12 schools, especially around the issue of mask mandates. 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 wrote in issuing the order a month ago.

Shelby County Schools, the largest district in the county, never enforced the governor’s order, but some municipal districts in the suburbs did. That came to an end with the previous temporary injunction earlier this month.

Keith Williams, the executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, hopes that this ruling can lead more decisions being made that are in the best interest of the students and teachers.

“If science has directed that online instruction is best and they’ve directed that wearing the masks, getting immunized, all of those things will solve this problem and what is the problem, why would we not follow, science?” Williams said.

For now, Shelby County’s health order requiring masks will be enforced in schools in Shelby County without exception for the governor’s order.

This story will be updated.

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