Classes at public schools in Knoxville, Tennessee, were canceled Monday after a group of anti-mask advocates threatened to stage disruptive protests at Knox County Schools over a mask mandate.
Video from a gathering of parents Sunday afternoon at a Knoxville-area park shows people applauding after one speaker urges attendees to “bring Knox County Schools to a screeching halt.”
The man encourages those in the audience to “block the entrance to the school with your car” and not to let school buses through. He calls this “a moral obligation for our children’s future,” and compares it to civil rights protesters using sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters.
From a public health perspective, the hostility toward mask requirements is troubling, to say the least. Studies have shown that mask mandates effectively control the spread of COVID-19 in schools, and that masks work best when everyone wears them. That’s especially important for younger children who are ineligible for the vaccine.
State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D) shared a segment of Sunday’s video on social media. “This is not a group that cares about kids,” she said, highlighting the “really concerning” call to physically impede access to schools.
After the event concluded, its organizer ― who claims to be a field coordinator for the John Birch society, a far-right political organization ― asked attendees to share the bell times for their children’s schools on Facebook. Many parents complied.
Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas canceled school shortly after, notifying parents in a message Sunday evening that students need not report Monday.
The district didn’t respond to an inquiry from HuffPost about the reason for the abrupt closure, or about whether it had anything to do with the anti-mask group. Attempts to reach the man who called for blocking school entrances with vehicles were unsuccessful.
In a message to parents, Thomas said school administrators and staff would use the time on Monday “to make sure our schools are ready for students on Tuesday.”
Last Friday, a federal judge ordered Knox County Schools to require students and staff to wear masks, overruling an executive order by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) that allowed parents to disregard local mask mandates enacted by school or health boards.
Four families filed suit over Lee’s order, arguing that the governor and the Knox County Board of Education failed to make “reasonable accommodations” to protect their children, who have underlying medical conditions that predispose them to serious illness from COVID-19.
U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer’s preliminary injunction Friday overturned the order, leading to the school district’s policy change.
“Beginning Monday, Sept. 27, all our students, employees, and visitors will be required to wear a face covering when indoors at one of our facilities or riding a school bus or shuttle, until further notice,” Thomas, the county superintendent, wrote in a message to families Friday.
“We recognize that this is a sensitive topic and that there are a wide variety of strongly held feelings about COVID-19 mitigation measures,” he wrote. “At the same time, I want to make very clear that we are required to implement this order.”
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