Note: This reporter's wife works at the Woodbridge School District, and both his children attend school there.
The pleas against mandatory masking at the Woodbridge school board meeting Thursday night were largely passionate but respectful.
Usually, reporting that 11 people spoke in a civil way at a school board meeting might not sound very newsworthy, but after other school board meetings around the state sometimes devolved into shouting and chaos, the tone stood out.
“Our community is wonderful,” Superintendent Heath Chasanov said afterward. “They're very respectful. They have strong opinions on this and you heard that tonight, but they did it the right way and I'm very proud of how we didn't have repeats of what we saw in some of the other communities.”
That’s not to say the board, and the mask mandate, didn’t come in for very pointed criticism.
Around 35 people were in the audience in the spacious high school auditorium, with many masked but quite a few going without. Up at the front, roped off behind yellow caution tape, board members sat widely spaced at individual tables.
A lot of the previously planned items were taken off the agenda. "That way we can focus on the item that I think most people are here to discuss," Board President Paul Breeding said. Saying he wanted people to be heard, he extended the comment period from 3 to 5 minutes, but nobody timed the speakers, who largely seemed to stay within the general limits.
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Every community member who spoke opposed the mandate, to applause.
One of the main objections to the mandate was that Gov. Carney and the state board of education were interfering with what speakers saw as a local decision that should belong to the school board or to parents. Others spoke passionately about struggles their children had during the past year of remote learning, and expressed concerns about the burden wearing masks would put on parents and teachers.
One parent, Erin Chronister, said her son told her, “I’ve never felt so alone in my life.”
Several questioned the risks of the virus. Others said people who felt uncomfortable about safety could get the vaccine.
Last year during COVID, nobody knew much about it, Corey Grammer said, but “It’s different this year. If you want a vaccine, you can get one tomorrow.”
Board President Paul Breeding announced at the beginning of the meeting that the board would not vote on whether to ask state authorities to rescind the mask mandate. It was a call that multiple people took issue with, asking why they had elected the board if they weren’t going to make decisions like this. In the only outburst in the meeting, attendee Frank Knotts walked out toward the end after Breeding reiterated that they would not vote on the mandate. Knotts said as he went, “Meaningless board, sitting in meaningless chairs, shuffling meaningless papers.”
Breeding said the governor had already heard the message clearly from other school districts, and Chasanov said, "The board did not have a decision to make, because it is law ... that's why (voting isn't) on the agenda tonight."
A couple of school board members said they were also hearing from parents on the other side.
“I’ve heard a lot from all of you, and I want to respect you, but I’ve also heard a lot of parents that want masks,” board member Jeffrey Allen said.
After the meeting, Chasanov said the district had surveyed both staff and parents and they were fairly evenly divided. Fifty-three percent of parents who responded opposed the mask mandate, and 47 percent supported it.
Chasanov emphasized to the audience that the goal was to have as normal a school year as possible. “Every single kid is going to get a chance to come to school every day, and unfortunately we weren’t able to do that last year.”
He said one big consideration is that if students are not wearing masks, and get exposed to someone with COVID-19, they have to be quarantined.
“We want to limit quarantine. The mask is a big part of that … I don’t like wearing it any more than anyone else does.”
Several of the board members thanked the audience for coming and caring about the district.
“It makes me happy to see people at board meetings because it tells me that there’s parents and teachers and individuals who care about their students, about what’s happening,” board member Julleanna Seely said. “So thank you for showing up and showing that you care.”
Due to space-time issues, this reporter was not able to cover the Lake Forest School Board meeting, which also started at 7 p.m. on Thursday. But a video recording of that meeting showed a fairly business-as-usual atmosphere. Only three residents spoke during the public comment period — all against the mask mandate, and all making their points politely. The gist of their arguments was similar to those at Woodbridge – that the governor is taking away what should be a decision for parents, and that Lake should follow Indian River's example in voting no confidence in the governor.