MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The debate over masks in schools continues. Some school districts in Shelby County say they’re optional while the health department says otherwise.

Despite an order from two federal judges and this memo from the Shelby County Health Department to all school officials enforcing its current mask mandate, several municipal school districts say masks are optional as they review current orders.

It’s a legal battle that started in August when Governor Bill Lee signed an executive order allowing parents to opt of mask mandates.

Since then parents have filed multiple lawsuits in Western and Middle Tennessee claiming this violates these students right to reasonable accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The lawsuits say wearing masks while in school is critical to their ability to enjoy educational opportunities.

Two federal judges have issued injunctions against the original opt order and newly signed legislation that bans mask mandates.

While these lawsuits play out in a courtroom, Attorney Van Turner says the focus should be on classroom safety.

“I would just implore those municipal districts to follow what the federal court has stated. This is being worked out in the courts but why don’t we err on the side of doing what’s safe. What’s the safest possible scenario for our young people and that’s masking up,” Turner said. “I think reading those two federal court cases in conjunction gives credence and weight to the whole notion of leaving the mask mandate in place while this gets worked out in the courts.”

The health department released a statement about any action against schools that violate its order saying:

“The Shelby County Health Department is currently investigating complaints it receives about Health Order violations. Health Department investigators are documenting each violation. In the event of an outbreak, the masking practices could make a significant difference in the number of students who are quarantined due to exposure.”


TIMELINE: Mask policy in Tennessee schools

August 16, 2021- Lee signs Executive Order 84 (Mask Opt out)

August 26, 2021- Shelby County files lawsuit against Opt Out Order

August 27, 2021- Lawsuit filed by two Shelby County Families against Lee

September 03, 2021- Temporary Restraining Order granted against opt out order (Judge Lipman)

September 17, 2021- Preliminary Injunction issued against opt out order (Judge Lipman)

October 27, 2021- Health Order 27 issued by SCHD, masks still required in schools

November 11, 2021- Shelby County files emergency injunction for clarification on newly passed legislation

November 12, 2021- Judge Lipman upholds injunction against opt out order

November 12, 2021- Gov. Lee signs new Covid restrictions into law

November 14, 2021- Middle Tennessee Judge issues injunction against new Covid laws (Judge Crenshaw)

November 15,2021- Middle Tennessee Judge upholds injunction against new COVID laws pending evidence hearing Friday morning (Judge Crenshaw)

November 15, 2021- Shelby County drops lawsuit against Lee

November 15, 2021- SCHD sends out memo enforcing mask mandate