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Most students in a Tennessee school district must wear masks starting Monday following a court order

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By Rebekah Riess and Dave Alsup, CNN

The 60,000 students attending classes in an eastern Tennessee county will be required to wear face masks indoors and on school buses starting Monday following a court order.

On Friday, US District Judge J. Ronnie Greer granted a motion for a preliminary injunction against the Knox County Board of Education and Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order that allows an opt-out for parents from any order requiring face coverings.

The judge ruled that the plaintiffs, four families who have children with medical conditions, had met their burden of establishing that they are entitled to a preliminary injunction.

The board was ordered with immediate effect to enforce a mask mandate that was instituted last year, and the governor is prohibited from enforcing his executive order in Knox County that would allow parents to opt-out of that mandate, the judge said. Exceptions could be made for individuals with autism or a tracheotomy, the judge said.

CNN has reached out to the governor’s office for comment.

School Superintendent Bob Thomas, in a message to parents, said that as a result, “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.”

“We recognize that this is a sensitive topic and that there are a wide variety of strongly held feelings about Covid-19 mitigation measures,” Thomas said. “At the same time, I want to make very clear that we are required to implement this order.”

In an executive order dated August 6, 2021, Gov. Lee said parents could opt-out by notifying a local education authority if they didn’t want their children to wear masks, according to the court order.

On September 1, the Knox County Board of Education voted 5-4 not to renew a mask mandate that had been in effect in the previous school year.

The court order noted that the decision was “at odds with the guidelines of the Knox County Health Department, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), all of which recommend masks for all students enrolled in through twelfth grade.”

Earlier this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported the second-highest total of new diagnoses among children over the course of the pandemic, with 225,978.

The rise in cases comes as many students return to classrooms while not yet eligible for Covid-19 vaccines. Studies are underway for younger children, but currently only children 12 and older can get inoculated.

Two studies released Friday support the CDC recommendation for universal indoor masking in schools.

One study in Arizona showed schools with no masking requirement were about 3.5 times more likely to have a Covid-19 outbreak than schools that had a universal masking requirement. And a second study showed counties across the US where schools required mask use also had less transmission of the virus in the community in general.

Knox County, whose main city is Knoxville, has a population of 470,000 people, according to the census.

Nearly 60% of the county’s eligible population is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

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