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Community protests mask mandates in schools

Community protests mask mandates in schools

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Most of the community members in attendance at Monday’s Floyd County Public School Board meeting stormed out in protest and solidarity after one woman refused to wear a face mask and was asked to leave.

The Sept. 13 meeting was the first since the recent surge in COVID-19 cases began and full in-person instruction resumed in Floyd County schools. It was also the first in recent months where face masks were required with no exceptions, and Floyd County Sheriff’s Deputies were asked to enforce that rule.

The Board cited Gov. Ralph Northam’s mask mandate for schools as reason for the enforcement Sept. 13.

A tense meeting from the moment it was called to order, largely because of the required masks, community members were outraged when the Board entered a closed session immediately after Chairman James Ingram called the meeting to order.

The Board went to another room at FCHS for the closed session to discuss “disciplinary action of a specific student,” leaving community members in the auditorium, masked and agitated. The restless crowd used the time to discuss why they were there and what kind of leadership they expect from the local school district.

Floyd resident Jeff Dowd led those gathered in the Lord’s Prayer and said every School Board meeting should start with its recitation instead of a moment of silence, and many members of the crowd agreed.

Hunter Crawford and Kellean Gale suggested a mass exodus in response to the Board entering closed session at the top of the meeting, but others said “that’s what they want.”

School Board candidate for District C, Renee Metcalf took the microphone of the podium and asked the crowd why it’s the same people at every School Board meeting, noting she would highlight parent involvement and consistent communication regarding FCPS changes if elected to the Board.

“These are your children, people, come to the school board meetings, make your voice heard, tell them what you want,” Metcalf said. “I’m running for school board to try to make things better, to try to represent you.”

Community members took the opportunity to voice where they feel the current Board falls short, from being morally qualified to communicating outside of meetings and public comment periods that are one-way with no responses from the Board.

Floyd County Board of Supervisors candidate for District E Kalinda Bechtold chimed in with support from her seat, and explained to other members of the crowd the local elections in November are a chance to put conservative values at the forefront of Floyd’s political discourse.

A number of other conversations were had about the current Board and other political candidates in Floyd.

When the Board returned and certified its closed session, Vice Chairman Laura LeRoy made a motion that no action be taken regarding the student’s case, seconded by Tony Morisco and the public comments began.

A former teacher, Debbie Johnson, said discussions about masks and school bathrooms are distractions from the larger problem — schools encouraging students to view only school officials as trusted adults.

Many told the Board requiring students to wear masks every day is overstepping its boundaries and harming students more than protecting them.

One mother, Heather Durham, appeared before the Board and shared the story of her daughter being made to wear a mask despite a sore behind the child’s ear from another mask’s bands.

She said school officials “physically sewed” a mask on her daughter that was “so tight she couldn’t even get a drink of water it was so tight,” and “it had to be cut off.”

Durham said school officials told her every student at FCPS is required to wear a mask, and no medical or religious exemptions are granted. She said, despite accommodations for such exemptions noted in the state mandate, School Board officials told her “it is against the law” to make any exceptions.

“It’s time the parents and the public in this school district make a change and take a stand. We’re the ones who voted you in, and we’re the ones that are going to vote you out,” Durham said, prompting applause and cheers from other audience members.

Durham was followed by Floyd resident Jeff Dowd who addressed each member of the Board with “what the community has to say” about them.

Kalinda Bechtold then approached the Board with a story of a 1960 sit-in to protest segregation in Greensboro, NC. Bechtold, a candidate for Floyd County Board of Supervisors, likened racism during the Civil Rights Movement to mask wearing during the pandemic.

“Fifteen days to flatten the curve has become masks everywhere, always. Take a shot, two or three, that you don’t want, or you are the problem. Now, you must be muzzled even after you take the jab? This defies basic logic,” she said.

Bechtold said the state mask mandate is unconstitutional and should not be followed, and said it is “parents’ rights to decide what is best for their children,” not schools’.

“It is time to free our children from this irrational fearmongering and uncover their beautiful faces. Let parents decide to mask their own children, give them the shot or play outside barefoot. These are not your children,” she said, “these are our children.”

Near the end of her comment, Bechtold said, “We are starting here in Floyd County to reclaim our freedom,” and tossed her mask into the air before making her way back to her seat.

Chairman Ingram told her if she didn’t put the mask back on, she would be escorted out by the Floyd County Sheriff’s Deputy beside the podium.

Bechtold responded that she had a medical condition and unless he or the Board wanted to pay for an ER visit, she would not put it back on.

Other community members removed their masks as well, claimed medical and/or religious exemptions, and shouted at the Board to “suck it up” several times.

Bechtold was asked to leave and escorted out by the deputies at the meeting, and the other community members gathered followed suit, many leaving masks behind in the auditorium. Several questioned the deputies about their role in enforcing the mask mandate as they exited the school, asking if the deputies would be coming for Floyd’s guns next.

About a dozen community members remained in the audience for the rest of the meeting, which included a motion by Gene Bishop to strike legal references from FCPS’ nondiscrimination policies that have been discussed in detail at other recent School Board meetings.

The motion died on the floor with no support from the rest of the Board.

Superintendent John Wheeler said in his report to the Board a study is planned at Floyd County High School to determine the feasibility of converting student restrooms to private restrooms. The same company that designed the new Collaboration and Career Development Center will be doing the study, he said.

Before the meeting adjourned, Wheeler explained the Board met with a student and their family during the closed session Sept. 13, which is why it was at the beginning of the meeting, instead of the end, well after 9 p.m.

Vice Chair LeRoy noted the 30-second warning she provided during the public comments was requested by a community member in the audience.

Floyd County Public School Board meetings are held at 7 p.m., the second Monday of each month. Unless otherwise announced, the meetings take place at 140 Harris Hart Rd. in Floyd.

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