The Gwinnett County Board of Education got through most of its meeting on Thursday night without issue, but it ended early during public comment with some board members leaving early and parents arguing with each other over the school system’s mask mandate.
The board had moved quickly through its business items, getting to public comment, which is the last part of the meeting, in less than an hour. It was during public comment, after a handful of the 30 people scheduled to speak had gotten up to address the board, that things began to unravel.
After a brief standoff over one woman’s refusal to wear a mask or leave the meeting, school board chairman Everton Blair announced the board would move into its conference room to hear the remainder of public comment. As people were filing into that room, however, Blair came out and announced the meeting was instead adjourned, meaning the board would not hear from more than two-thirds of the people signed up to address it.
The issue, according to Blair, was that some board members opted to leave the building all together rather than move to another room.
“The meeting is adjourned,” Blair told audience members. “There is no quorum. If you are signed up to speak today and did not get to speak, then we will handle that, but if you want to speak with me, I’m going to hang back for a few minutes.”
The incident is the latest in a long line of disputes between the district and the school board. A standoff over the district’s original mask mandate — that mandate was lifted over the summer before the new one was instituted at the end of July — led to the board’s May business meeting being delayed for nearly an hour.
Blair did not specify which board members had left, but the board needs three members present to have a quorum. Board member Mary Kay Murphy had not been present at the meeting, and since Blair was present to make the announcement, that means at least two of the other three board members — Vice-Chairwoman Karen Watkins and board members Tarece Johnson and Steve Knudsen — would have had to have left for a quorum to be broken.
Blair asked Gwinnett County Public Schools staff to go through the audience and ask people who were not wearing a face mask to put one on. That led to a standoff with one woman who refused to either put a mask on or leave the meeting, even declaring that she was willing to be arrested for defying the mandate.
“My husband will bail me out,” the woman said in a raised voice at one point.
A video recording of the meeting omitted much of the audio of the altercation between the woman and GCPS staff members.
One of the issues parents who oppose the mask mandate have with it — in addition to wanting it to be a choice for kids as to whether they wear a mask — is that there have been no indications as to when it will end, including what threshold would have to be reached for masks to become optional.
“The community deserves a metric,” said Holly Terei, one is one of a group of parents who has sued GCPS over the mask mandate. “When is this going to end?”
The Georgia Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 tracker has been showing a sharp decline since early October in Gwinnett County’s two-week new case numbers.
As of Thursday, Gwinnett had seen 198 new cases of COVID for every 100,000 residents over a two-week period. That, in itself, is down from a two-week ratio of 267 new cases for every 100,000 residents as of Monday, and a 512 cases per 100,000 residents two-week ratio as of Oct. 2.
Thursday was the first time since Aug. 4 that Gwinnett’s two-week new case number ratio has been below 200 cases per 100,000 residents.
Johns Hopkins University reported on Friday that Gwinnett had a daily average of 12.3 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period.
Terei pointed out that other Georgia school systems —including some metro Atlanta districts — have recently lifted their mask mandates as cases dropped, and gone to masks being optional.
Henry County Schools and Marietta City Schools lifted their mask mandates and moved to making them optional a week ago. The school systems in Bryan County, near Savannah, and Troup County, which is on the Georgia-Alabama line southwest of Atlanta, also switched from mandating masks to making them optional within the last week and a half.
“How much lower are they wanting? What is the goal here because this is absolutely absurd,” Terei said.
GCPS spokeswoman Sloan Roach said the district does not have a timeline for when the mask mandate could end. She also said a decision on ending it would be based on guidance the district receives.
“District leaders continue to follow the guidance of our health partners and the CDC,” Roach said. “Our primary focus remains the health and safety of our students and staff. That said, we continue to listen to the concerns of our community on both sides of this issue.”
After Blair announced the meeting was adjourned, some of the parents began to argue with each other over requiring masks.
“Some of us actually want the masks,” one woman told a group of parents who are against the mandate as she told them they were being disruptive and preventing her from raising concerns about “real issues that’s going on in the schools.”
“We’re not anti-masks, we’re just anti-mandate,” one woman in the group said in response.