School Board Deadlocks on Mask Change

school board meeting

School Board Deadlocks on Mask Change

With some members questioning the need to revisit the requirement, a 4-4 tie leaves it in place for now.

by jesse fox mayshark • April 30, 2021

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The Knox County board of education at its meeting friday morning.

In a rare move, four out of eight Knox County school board members present for an emergency meeting Friday morning declined to even approve the agenda, stopping the discussion before it started.

The divided board may revisit the issue at its meetings in the coming weeks.

The meeting had been called by board Chair Susan Horn to reconsider the district’s face mask requirement for students, staff and visitors in Knox County Schools buildings for the remainder of the school year. The move came after the lifting of many restrictions earlier this week by Gov. Bill Lee and the subsequent removal of the countywide mask mandate by County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

The school board deadlock keeps in place the mask requirement that the district instituted at the start of the school year. The proposal on the agenda would have ended it at the close of day on Friday. 

“This agenda is re-deliberating a topic that we have now met about eight times, nine hours of discussion, and 55 public forum speakers,” said board member Daniel Watson, who was among those opposed to proceeding with the meeting. “We literally made a decision about this two weeks ago.”

At its April 15 meeting, the board voted to let its current mask policy expire at the beginning of August, although it still left the possibility that the superintendent could impose restrictions based on guidance from health officials.

The lack of action Friday prompted an outpouring of anger from anti-mask protesters in the balcony of the City County Building’s Main Assembly Room, many of whom had signed up to speak at public forum but did not get a chance to because the meeting did not proceed. (You can see a short video with some of the reaction here.)

Kevin Hill, one of the leaders of the anti-mask movement that has targeted County Commission and the school board for the past eight months, stood at the front of the balcony pointing and shouting at Superintendent Bob Thomas.

“Bob Thomas, you need to look for a new job!” Hill yelled. “You’re gone! You are gone! Shame! Shame!”

Thomas sent an email to school board members Thursday night recommending that the board let its mask policy expire May 26, right after the end of the school year, in light of Lee’s stated preference that all mask mandates be lifted by the end of May.

The board may consider that recommendation at its May 5 work session and May 12 regular meeting.

Board Vice Chair Virginia Babb said 21 people had signed up for public forum at Friday’s meeting. Not all wanted the mask mandate lifted. Ethan Lindsey, a sophomore at L&N STEM Academy, took a few hours out of his school day to come to the meeting.

“I’m glad with the decision, because as a student with asthma and other pre-existing conditions, I do not feel safe when people are not wearing masks,” he said. “I think it’s really important that we do maintain this policy, just to keep everyone safe.”

Joining Watson in voting not to approve the agenda were Babb and board members Jennifer Owen and Kristi Kristy. Voting to approve it were Horn and board members Betsy Henderson, Patti Bounds and Mike McMillan, all of whom have questioned pandemic health guidelines in recent months.

Board member Evetty Satterfield was absent due to a schedule conflict — notification for Friday’s meeting was just sent on Wednesday. Kristy said she didn’t want to debate the issue without Satterfield, who had initially proposed the mask policy last August.

“I feel that now more than ever we need to make sure that the 1st District has a voice at the table,” Kristy said, in an apparent reference to the recent violence and turmoil at Austin-East Magnet High School in Satterfield’s district.

Watson said that of 346 emails and voicemails he had received in the two days since the meeting was announced, two-thirds to three-quarters of parents, students, and principals he heard from were opposed to lifting the mandate before the end of the school year. Of 65 teachers, 91 percent were opposed.

“I don't think that this is a decision that we need to be making simply by public opinion,” Watson said. “But if that is your view, that this is a public opinion decision, obviously the public opinion is, ‘Why are we talking about this?’”

Horn said she had been encouraged to call the meeting by the county Law Department. Deputy Law Director Gary Dupler told the board that while nothing in the governor’s or Jacobs’ orders directly affected the school system, he thought it was worth revisiting the issue.

“We knew that there was additional information out there and felt that the board needed to weigh that,” Dupler said.

But Babb said none of the new information required emergency action by the board. 

“We’re meeting next Wednesday, regularly scheduled, and that would (give) us time to deal with what the governor came out with,” she said. “I see no reason that this was an emergency today. There are some things going on in our school system that I do think are emergencies, and this is not one of them.”

After a few rounds of discussion about whether to proceed with Friday’s meeting, the 4-4 vote held and Horn adjourned the session. The angry crowd created sufficient concern that sheriff's deputies escorted board members out of the building.