The ongoing debate over wearing face masks brought Thursday night’s Gwinnett County Board of Education meeting to a halt for 40 minutes after Board Chairman Everton Blair said he would not start the meeting until everyone put masks on.

Blair began the meeting by stating that district policy requires anyone in a Gwinnett County Public Schools facility is required to wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose, and that anyone who refused to comply with that policy had to leave. He then recessed the meeting for five minutes before announcing that, since several parents still refused to wear masks, the meeting would remain in recess.

“I’m still looking at a lot of people who are not abiding with the county policy currently standing, and so we’re going to have to ask you all to leave, and we’ll stay recessed until you do,” Blair said.

After a 40-minute delay, the board moved to its training room — where it normally holds its work sessions — to hold its business meeting, with people set to be recognized by the board Thursday making up the in-person audience. The meeting was broadcast to people who were still in the board room where the meeting had originally been scheduled to take place.

The board later returned to the main board room — as some audience members shouted “cowards” at them — for public comment, where 58 people were scheduled to speak.

The move to a different room for most of the meeting came after parents who refused to wear masks jeered board members as they tried to plead with the audience to wear masks.

“I do not want to wear this mask, but we are in a very fluid situation right now,” Board member Steve Knudsen said. “The current policy of Gwinnett County Public Schools, through the end of the year and what we’re expecting of our staff and our students is that we finish the year with masks.

“We have a meeting to hold. We value your input ...”

“No you don’t,” several parents shouted in response.

“The current policy stands, I would like those of you who I know well and respect to please put on masks,” Knudsen started to say in response before he was drowned out by the audience.

“No,” several audience members shouted back.

At one point, board Vice-Chairwoman Karen Watkins asked for security to intervene, but it was to no avail.

The face mask issue has been a topic that some Gwinnett parents have pushed back on in recent months, and video of one parent protesting the use of masks at last month’s board meeting was circulated on social media and picked up by FOX News. Complicating the matter is the fact that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has said people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer have to wear face masks. Institutions and businesses are not required to strictly follow CDC guidance.

The standoff between the anti-mask audience members and board members capped off a school year marked by protests. Some of the parents seen sitting in the anti-mask group also participated in rallies calling on district leaders to offer an in-person education option at the beginning of the school year last summer.

The school year was also marked by protests aimed at Democrats on the school board by supporters of Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks over his future with the district.

The Georgia Department of Public Health reported Friday that 37% of people in Gwinnett have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and only 30% are fully vaccinated. Those statistics prompted Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson to rescind a face mask mandate for county government-owned buildings late this past week, but schools are not run by the county government and have their own separate rules. As a result, Hendrickson’s decision does not apply to the schools.

But, state Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, D-Snellville, made a presentation to the board in which she said mitigation strategies, such as wearing face masks, have worked in stemming the tide of the pandemic.

“I’ve spent quite a bit of the last year learning about masks and that they’re efficacious in reducing COVID transmissions, even while they’re insufficient as a sole control strategy,” said Mitchell, who is an infectious disease epidemiologist.

The lawmaker said new CDC guidelines for schools recommends district provide two prevention strategies: one is practicing social distancing and “universal and correct” face mask usage by people who can wear them. Her presentation included a slide featuring Georgia Department of Public Health data that shows 67,441 Georgia kids between the ages of 10 and 17 have gotten COVID-19, and that 709 kids have been hospitalized and seven children have died from the disease.

“I think the CDC guidelines emphasizes several elements,” Mitchell said. “One is that children do get COVID.”

Mitchell also said guidance could change as COVID-19 variants emerge, and that the variant that is currently dominant is not the same variant that was dominant two months ago.

But, the opponents of face masks came to the board meeting organized. Several anti-mask audience members on Thursday night wore T-shirts with the slogan “Unmask our children” on them, or waved signs containing the same slogan.

Several anti-mask parents shouted at board members and got into heated arguments with audience members who supported the district’s face mask policy.

Statements made by anti-mask audience member ranged from pro-abortion slogans to popular memes from the 2010’s.

“My body, my choice,” one parent shouted.

“Bye Felicia,” another audience member shouted.

Many anti-mask audience members mainly vented their frustration at the board for making them wear masks.

“We pay your salaries,” one audience member shouted.

Another person shouted, “If we don’t make a stand now, they are going to step on us forever. This is not civil disobedience, this is standing our ground.”

I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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(27) comments

MarvinGardens

Here's a solution. Require masks only for the unvaccinated, in keeping with CDC policy. Make it a crime to lie about one's vaccination status. It is a form of medical fraud, after all.

Malika

You want to wear a mask and make your self I'll, you have the right to do so. I have the right to breath clean Air and so do my children. Masks have nothing to do with preventing the spread of virus is. Virus particles travel right through these cloth masks. Masks are one group trying to visually censure another group. It's Marxist racism ideaology.

Alisa67

And these are the parents that send their student to school everyday and expect the teacher to teach them! Nice job parents! Follow the rules for gosh sakes! You got FIVE days left of school! Grow up! These teachers and kids have had enough of your belly aching, wear a mask and shut your pie hole. Kids have been fine all year and you’re the ones making the big deal! I bet when they come home you’re the one complaining about their mask not them. Give me a break! Bunch of whiny babies taking up time. Enough already!why not just homeschool your kids, you’re obviously way smarter the the rest of us!!

happy2chee

I totally agree. It’s embarrassing. The one lady they showed cries on cue every month.

twlatl

The mask mandate has got to go. It is irreparably harming our children's development. It is causing many kids anxiety, claustrophobia, skin acne, and a host of other conditions that won't be fully realized for years from now. You don't restrict the intake of O2 for 40 hours a week for a developing child and expect that it won't have any consequences.

On the other hand, children are practically immune to the serious effects of this virus. And the adults who want to be vaccinated are, or can be.

So let people wear the masks if they want, and if they don't, don't force it on them. Period.

On a side note: Kemp could show great leadership by abolishing the mask mandate for schools and other state run buildings, like Idaho and Texas and many others have done. That he hasn't is just another disappointment that his Governorship has produced.

happy2chee

“Practically immune” means your kid is the likely the one spreading Covid & you don’t care because he’s asymptomatic. They need masks. The kids walking around with no masks causes the adults to catch Covid, anxiety, fear, depression, suicidal ideation, etc...

The adults, especially teachers should not have to take an experimental vaccine to deal with your Covid caring kids. You wanted them back in school. They are back. Now you want to force us to to breathe their Covid carrying air? You won’t be happy until there are no teachers or adults.

GCPSupport

Just curious as to why no comments from the “pro mask” groups to the anit-mask group were not posted? In addition, the profanity you heard was from the anti-mask group.This has been going on for a long time. When the pro mask folks return to their seats, many times they are greeted with profanity that is whispered to them when they go by....this public display is embarrassing to our community. Let’s try to report both sides of this issue...many of the people that continue to subscribe to your paper deserve it...thank you

dadof4

The school board members handled this poorly, giving the impression that this more about politics than science. They should have said, "Many of our children can't get a vaccine yet, many adults refuse to get the vaccine. If you want end this mask policy to end, get your vaccine."

The good news is the Covid numbers are going down in the USA.

happy2chee

Sad to say it wasn’t the board. I was there. This looked orchestrated. I heard the board ask the Gomez guy hand out masks. People who work at the district and people who are SRO Officers told the rowdy crowd that they did not have to wear masks to keep confusion going.

WLynch

I am very proud of the Gwinnett parents last night. The mask insanity must stop. Let our children get back to a normal life. When you hear stories like speech therapy being given in masks… you realize there is no common sense with this mandate and our children are suffering because of political agendas.

happy2chee

I wasn’t proud. They looked like Proud Boys and Girls on a layover. This was a local takeover like the Capitol takeover. I was embarrassed to be a resident for once in my life. Now it just looks like we have a problem with the Black board members no matter what they say. It’s a rule to wear the masks. The kids have one week left. Get over it.

Steph18

As a concerned citizen who attended the meeting, this article does not fully reflect what happened at the board meeting. This report did not include any mention of one audience member who yelled, ‘shut the f*** up, you are so f***ing stupid’. I heard these statements at least a dozen times in the presence of middle school aged children. Although the mask-less parents were loud and vocal, profanity was not in their message.

Police and GCPS security were present and listening to the dozens of f-bombs being dropped, followed by several middle finger salutes and no one stepped up to remove this person from the meeting. As a life long Gwinnett resident, I’m very concerned about our future.

My greatest thought after witnessing both sides last night was that we are in dire need of mature leadership. The meeting was out of control as soon as it began and our current school board did not have the leadership skills to get it back on track.

GCPS and the board did not communicate the mask/no mask requirement for meeting attendees. Several parents communicated that the GCPS operations office had confirmed that masks were not required prior to yesterday’s meeting. Chairman Blair acknowledged the communication errors with his opening statement of, ‘there has been confusion around our mask policy for this evening’. Perhaps that message should have been shared prior to the start of the meeting.

In addition, dozens of students were attending to receive recognition and awards for outstanding achievements. Our board is elected first and foremost to serve and protect the students of the district. Chairman Blair could have asked for social distancing to be respected and the mask discussion tabled until after the students were recognized.

Once the decision was made to move the students, they all filed out of the room to applause from all meeting attendees. In that moment, when ALL parents applauded the outstanding students, it is clear that we all care first about the students in the school system.

We must demand leadership that can clearly communicate expectations, leadership that moves forward instead of running away, leadership that can set examples for the outstanding students in this district.

Alisa67

I agree with you, however, once the miscommunication was cleared up, they should have complied with the request of Chairman Blair. If masks were offered and were not taken that is exactly what happened at the siege of the White House when members of the House were in sequester, masks were passed around and refused as they were thought to be “political”. It is a health issue. As a health care provider and a mother of 4 school age children (3 who have gotten Covid) masks should have never been political! One person made it political

happy2chee

I 💯 agree.

getoverit

Bought and sold by aft..........time to get out country back. The democrats want us to continue to live in fear in order to control us.

smatt65

Civil disobedience. One of the most basic of founding principles of our country. No riots, no burning, no looting. Just facing down these coward politicians.

PatriciaC

Interesting too that the reporter saw this as newsworthy but none of Tarese Johnson’s biased FB posts.

happy2chee

Anti-racist does not mean anti-white, unless you’re racist. Are you racist?

Mom

Where was Tarece Johnson and Karin Watkins?! They bailed. Pathetic “leadership”.

happy2chee

I don’t blame them. I would have left. There are capacity limits and most of y’all refused to wear masks. It was unsafe and contagious. I left by 10:00. Some boy was drooling. No sanitizer. I’m sure Covid was left behind. 😔

PatriciaC

Proud of their civil disobedience. The mask evidence provided by the CDC is limited. Additionally if Gwinnett had listened to the CDC we would not have opened in the fall- a semester that was successful and safe. The new board members in January wanted to close schools when community spread is high- a CDC recommendation later proven to be not science based but at the request of the AFT. We are quarantining healthy children from school. The reality is that these parents have been leading the fight for the children all school year and have been proven right. I hope you amend the story to include that Tarese Johnson and Karen Whatkins disrespectfully walked out on their constituents prior to the public comment portion. They are truly a disgrace to public service.

happy2chee

Stop trying to spin this. They have a right to their health. I was there & it looked unhealthy. Most of the kids breathing with no masks. Adults with no masks. I still feel like I need to shower.

ajames

Students at at least one school has been quarantined as a student tested positive for Covid. To even consider the notion of NOT requiring everyone to wear masks inside is inexcusable. There is no way to guarantee thate everyone a child or adult comes in contact with is not a carrier of the virus whether or not the parents or other adults have been vaccinated. I do not believe the vaccine prevents people from being able to spread the virus to non-vaccinated people.

KEEP THE MASK REQUIREMENTS IN FORCE.

PatriciaC

But you are stating a personal belief not backed by scientific evidence. Why would that mandate the behavior of others?

MarvinGardens

No, if vaccinated, odds of spreading the virus is very low, hence the change to CDC policy. But the unfortunately the large vaccine-hesitant population argues for keeping it place, or excluding the unvaccinated.

happy2chee

Not everyone feels safe getting vaccinated. Only 29% are vaccinated which is low and too low for herd immunity. So what now? The angry parents plan to bully your way until your kids are a walking around spreading Covid because you don’t want to wear a mask. Get over it. Put on a mask and keep everyone safe, not just your Fox News supporters.

Alisa67

Agree 10000%

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