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.
The county announced on its website on Friday that Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson issued an executive order a day earlier to rescind the mask mandate she put in place earlier this year.
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.”