Williamson County Schools (WCS) announced Friday they’re ending their mask mandate, several weeks after a judge opined they lacked legal authority to continue imposing it. After the spring semester lets out, WCS won’t require masks any longer. In a voicemail obtained by The Tennessee Star, WCS Communications Director Carol Birdsong announced to parents that WCS was ending their mask mandate.
“Hello Williamson County Schools families, this is Carol Birdsong calling. Superintendent Jason Golden announced at last night’s school board work session that the district’s indoor mask requirement will come to an end once school has been dismissed and campuses have been cleared on Friday, May 21. The district will continue to recommend and encourage masks this summer for those who are not fully vaccinated – but they will not be required. More information is included in the email that is accompanying this phone call.”
In screenshots of the email, obtained by The Star, Birdsong specified several reasons that informed Golden’s decision. The court case ruling wasn’t one of them.
“The on-campus population will reduce by about 95 percent when school releases which will allow for more social distancing. Local positive cases are down substantially and continue to fall. All WCS teachers and staff have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. Availability of the COVID vaccines has increased to all individuals 12 years old and older,” stated the email. “Although we will continue to monitor any new developments that might arise over the summer, we project there will not be a need to require masks when the 2021-22 school year begins in August.”
As The Tennessee Star reported, WCS parents took the school district to court to challenge their mask mandate authority in Citizens for Limited Government and Constitutional Integrity, Inc., et. al, vs. Jason Golden, et. al.
The defendants named in the case were Golden and the Williamson County Board of Education (WCBOE). The plaintiffs were Citizens for Limited Government and Constitutional Integrity, Inc., and WCS parents Gary Humble, Tony and Heather Bates, Chelsea Gilbert. They filed suit last September. Humble founded Citizens for Limited Government and Constitutional Integrity, Inc.
Williamson County Chancery Court by Judge Michael Binkley dismissed the case for lack of standing on April 30.
However, Binkley also included a lengthy alternate ruling in his judgment. He assessed that WCS lacked the legal authority to enforce a mask mandate. Since the alternate ruling was made at the summary judgment stage, Binkley wasn’t issuing an order – he was making an observation of the legality of the masking requirement.
The Court is not convinced, as a matter of law, that WCBOE acted within its statutory authority at the time it promulgated its face-covering requirements. Further, the policy decisions promulgated by Mayor [Rogers] Anderson and Governor [Bill] Lee in February 2021 and April 2021 are inconsistent with WCBOE’s continued enforcement of face-covering requirements. With respect to WCBOE’s authority to issue a face-covering requirement, Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss or for Summary Judgment is alternatively DENIED. The Court cannot find, as a matter of law, Defendants have acted within the authority given to them by the legislature when enacting face-covering requirements. (emphasis added)
The judge reviewed the state and local statutory authority and their recent masking orders, and found them to be “inconsistent” with WCS’s mask mandate.
In response to the ruling, the law firm representing WCS submitted a public statement claiming that this alternate ruling didn’t convey that WCS lacked legal authority:
As the prevailing party, we would not file an appeal. All of the claims against the Williamson County Board of Education and Superintendent Golden were dismissed. Because we already won the case, we do not plan to appeal.
The Williamson County Chancery Court dismissed all of the claims, holding that none of the plaintiffs established that they suffered a legally recognizable harm. The opinion states, “Here, as succinctly stated by Defendants, ‘Plaintiffs have failed to identify any legal authority to support the contention that their children have a legal right to receive a free and public education on-site at a school location without wearing a face covering.’”
After concluding that the lack of standing required dismissal, the Judge then made some additional findings for the benefit of any reviewing court if the plaintiffs appealed his dismissal of the case. The additional findings are: (1) The decision to require face coverings for Williamson County students was supported by a rational basis, and therefore the fact that the plaintiffs’ children may have been subject to a face covering requirement that did not apply to children in some other school systems did not deprive them of equal educational opportunities; and (2) The Judge stated that he could not, at the summary judgment stage, make a determination as to whether the Board had statutory authority to require face coverings outside of the emergency powers granted by the Governor. This does not mean that the Judge found that the Board lacked authority. On summary judgment, the Judge has to construe all facts in favor of the adverse party, and if there is any factual dispute, must decline to grant summary judgment and instead move forward to a hearing on the merits of the case. Here, the Judge concluded that he could not, at the summary judgment stage, definitively state whether the Board’s enumerated statutory authorities included, or did not include, the authority to implement a mask mandate.
The Judge therefore granted the Board’s Motion to Dismiss. Some confusion has arisen out of the Judge’s ruling that he could not reach a determination on the issue of statutory authority at the summary judgment stage. Some have apparently read it to say that he declared the Board lacked authority, but that is not accurate. Rather, he simply said that he was not persuaded, at the summary judgment stage, that the Board had established its authority as a matter of law. This merely means that if he had not dismissed the case on other grounds, an evidentiary hearing would have been required to address that determination. Because all of the claims against the Board and Superintendent Golden have been dismissed, no such evidentiary hearing is required.
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