The opposition to masks has been particularly crushing for parents like Ms. Hart, who see in-person schooling as a lifeline for their children with disabilities. Those students have been among the most underserved during the pandemic but also sometimes face a higher probability that going to school could make them severely ill.
Tennessee is one of seven states that the federal Education Department is investigating to determine whether governors’ orders allowing families to flout school mask mandates discriminate against students with disabilities by restricting their access to education.
Even though many local school boards, including Williamson County’s, have voted to require universal masking, an executive order issued by Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, allows parents to send their children to school maskless, no questions asked. At the high school Ms. Hart’s son attends, data published weekly by the district shows that more than 30 percent of parents have formally opted out, a percentage that mirrors the district’s overall.
“We’ve always known that not everybody really cares about our children, but it is in our face right now — that it’s not worth you asking your child to wear a mask, so my child can be safe,” said Ms. Hart, who is a researcher and a trained epidemiologist. “That is the scar that I will carry from the pandemic, this playing out in my face over and over and over again.”
Parents of special education students in two Tennessee counties covering the eastern and western parts of the state have sued to block the governor’s order; one lawsuit has succeeded. A third, covering Williamson County, had a hearing before a judge this week.
In the most recent complaint, three lawyers argued that the governor, the Williamson County school board and a carve-out district within the county called the Franklin Special School District, are violating the rights of special education students by allowing parents to opt their children out of the mandate.
The suit was filed on behalf of a student with Down syndrome and another with Type 1 diabetes, but seeks protections for all “similarly situated” students. “Defendants’ actions have pitted children against children, while placing the health and safety of medically vulnerable children with disabilities in danger,” the complaint said.