School board rejects proposal to implement mask mandate

By Ken Lay

Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas will not have authority to require the district’s staff, faculty or students to wear masks on campus.

Thomas also won’t have the authority to implement other COVID-19 safety policies.

Board member Daniel Watson made a motion to add the item to the agenda at the board of education’s regular session meeting Wednesday night at the City/County Building.

Had the motion passed, it would have given Thomas the power to implement a mask mandate and other layered COVID-19 safety protocols while following advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Tennessee Department of Health and the Knox County Health Department.

But the motion was rejected by a 5-4 vote with Susan Horn, Mike McMillan, Patti Bounds, Betsy Henderson and Kristi Kristy voting against the measure after hours of discussion in public forum and debate by the board members.

McMillian said that he could not vote for the motion because he didn’t have confidence in the CDC.

“I do not have any confidence in – the CDC. We really do not know much about what the CDC is right now,” McMillan said. “If we’re going to vote on something, I’m not going to vote for it. I just want everyone to understand.”

McMillan also cited the CDC’s ever-changing policy in his reason for voting against the measure.

One board member changed her course in the week between the August work session and Wednesday night’s marathon meeting that lasted nearly four hours.

Board Co-Chair Virginia Babb said in the work session that it was not the time to issue mandates. Last week, however, she proposed a measure that would mandate face coverings to be worn on KCS campuses.

That motion also failed.

Many speakers voiced their views on masks in school and their opinions were virtually split.

So masks remain optional, social distancing protocols are determined by principals and there is currently no contact tracing.

Bounds, an opponent of mask mandates, showed slides of the recent youth city swim championships at the University of Tennessee with swimmers and spectators jammed into the Allan Jones Aquatics Center.

Her first slide showed the sign at the entrance which stated that the CDC strongly recommends masks.

“Many of you may not know what this is, except for Ms. Horn and Ms. Babb, who have had swimmers,” Bounds said. “These are the pictures of the city swimming championships.

“You see the spectators and you see the athletes and they’re not wearing masks. I think these people are representative of Knox County. To me, this is about freedom and education. These people want their children to have an education and these people want their freedom.”

Student board representative Raymond Jin spoke in favor of the mask mandate as he expressed his belief that it’s a necessity to keep schools open for in-person learning.

“I would hope that the board would vote to enforce a mask mandate,” Jin said before the motion failed. “There are students who are not currently wearing masks, but they would wear a mask.”