FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Five years ago, Kim Hart’s son underwent an open-heart surgery that got him healthy enough for the family to move from Cincinnati to this quiet suburb of Nashville. Her son has Down syndrome and autism, and she liked that Williamson County had a reputation for caring neighbors and safe schools.
But every day for the past month, she has wondered whether she made a mistake.
It was here that an explosive debate over masking in schools — one of the most effective strategies for keeping students learning in person safely during the pandemic — made the county a poster child for divisions over coronavirus safety measures. A video clip of a county school board meeting last month, showing protesters heckling and threatening medical professionals and parents who supported a universal mask mandate as they left the meeting, drew national attention and a rebuke from President Biden.
As cases in Tennessee surged — the state was leading the nation in new infections per capita earlier this month — many residents of the predominantly white, wealthy county were left despondent that a piece of fabric had become a political statement.
“It’s very dystopian,” Ms. Hart said. “I’m used to arguing with a district to get my kid what he needs. I’m not used to my neighbors screaming at a school board meeting over a mandate that protects everybody.”
At the school board’s August meeting, parents who objected to the mandate pleaded with board members to allow them to be the arbiters of their children’s health decisions. Many said they believed that forcing children to wear masks negatively affected their emotional and physical health; some said they did not believe masks had been proven to work at all.
One parent, Leigh-Allyn Baker, a self-described “California refugee,” said she gave up a Hollywood career “for freedom, and to come to this friendly place of Tennessee and be greeted with open arms.”
Holding up copies of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers and the Bible, Ms. Baker told the board: “These guarantee my freedom, and yours, and my children’s to breathe oxygen.”
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.