Student mask issue shows divide among residents at heated meeting; 30 day mandate wins in 4-1 vote

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Members of the North Smithfield School Committee voted 4-1 to mandate masks for the first 30 days of school, following a tense and emotional three and a half hour meeting Tuesday night, which at times had everything from tears and shouting, to finger-pointing and obscene language.

The vote, which still requires second passage, marked a reversal from a previous policy that would have made face coverings optional when school begins on Tuesday, August 31.

And it comes just as the state Education Council has voted to reject any back-to-school plans that don’t include such mandates, rendering the debate somewhat irrelevant.

“Circumstances have changed,” said Committee Vice-Chairperson Jean Meo. “We have to protect our population.”

In July, committee members had approved the first reading of a policy that would have made face coverings optional. But member Paul Jones since expressed a desire to pass a mask mandate on social media, leading to a contentious online debate, and ultimately, an effort to organize in favor of parental choice.

It was a full house in the North Smithfield Middle School on Tuesday, Aug. 17 for the policy discussion, with more than 100 residents also attending virtually via Zoom.

Much of the testimony focused on the politics surrounding mask mandates, and included declarations of planned defiance.

“It’s a scare tactic for the community to go into submission,” said Danielle Ferguson, mother of a tenth grade student. “Don’t be stupid. The government we have right now wants everyone to be fearful and the Delta variant is their new tactic.”

Ferguson pointed to debates on Facebook prior to the meeting.

“There seems to be a Marxist group that appears to have influenced people in our town,” she said “I will be dropping my son off without a mask, and I am not going have a panel of liberals tell them otherwise.”

“This is about parental choice. This is not about what you guys deem, what the CDC says, what all the experts say,” said Greg Galano. “We want to have our personal freedoms met. That’s all we’re asking for. It’s not your choice what our kids do.”

Galano was confrontational with board members, shouting as he asked what will happen if a child shows up to school without a mask.

“Are you going to send him home while parents are working?” he asked. “Are you going to lock them in a broom closet? I want an answer tonight.”

“I’m looking at you,” Galano shouted at Jones. “Stop being a coward. You think tonight’s bad? It’s going to get a lot worse.”

Shouts of support for Galano and obscenities could be heard from the crowd as he demanded an answer.

“We are not going to deny a kid an education,” replied Supt. Michael St. Jean.

It was Councilor Claire O’Hara who stood up in attempt to restore order at the meeting, stating that while she considers herself a libertarian, the school board is generally doing a great job.

“Their preparation tonight was outstanding,” O’Hara said, later addressing detractors. “Who am I, some of you may think? My name is Claire O’Hara. This is my town. It’s a town that’s always cared.”

“I almost started crying because I’ve never seen (such) yelling and screaming,” O’Hara said. “If you’re representing a course, you’re negating it. We are, and have always been, a sensible town. I very much believe a parent has a right to stick up for their children. But it’s the way you stick up. If you don’t agree, you don’t attack them.”

“This country may be a mess, but please, don’t let it tear apart our town,” said O’Hara.

Others expressed less anger in their opposition to a potential mandate, citing concerns about students’ mental health, their ability to breathe, and the potential hinderances to learning.

“I am very much in favor of parent choice,” said Sarah Salisbury. “We’re all here because we care so much about our kids and this school system.”

“I’m here tonight to express concern of the indoctrination of fear in our children and its long term effects,” said Michael Bartomioli. “Do we truly wish to propagate social anxiety and fear amongst them? Is that how we protect them?”

Many more pointed to distrust of authority and opposition to government over-reach in their opposition.

“These tyrannical mandates that are sweeping our society will end when we stand up and say ‘no,'” said Shawn Ingram. “There’s no evidence that I have seen of masks being useful.” 

Councilor Stephen Corriveau took issue with the Centers for Disease Control’s assessment that antibodies last only 90 days after recovery from the virus. Corriveau said he, his wife and his four children all tested positive for COVID-19 in April. As of yesterday, Corriveau said the whole family has tested positive for widespread immunity.

The councilor said that in April, after the family was cleared to come out of quarantine by the Department of Health, his kids were yelled at and kicked out of an event by a school faculty member, and that other kids were told to avoid them at school.

“By giving parents a choice, it leaves the responsibility and respect with each parent,” he said.

Rep. Brian Newberry, who noted he was speaking as a parent, said any decision on the divisive issue would come with tradeoffs.

“I know they’ll try to do the right thing,” Newberry said of the school board.

However, Newberry added, “I have no confidence in the Centers for Disease Control. I don’t think anyone should.”

“When does this end? Because COVID is not ever going away,” Newberry said. “I care about hospitalization and death. There is nothing to show suggesting that we’re anywhere near close to what happened last year. If you’re going to mandate a mask policy, the only way you’re going to convince people who are opposed to it is to show actual scientific metrics and data to explain why you’re doing it.” 

Those defending a mandate also had their say.

Lisa Carter, a primary physician with a degree in public health, pointed to the Delta variant.

“It is more dangerous. It is more transmissible and so it is more dangerous this year than it was last year for unvaccinated people to be exposed to each other,” Carter said. “The only way that unvaccinated people are protected are if everybody masks or the vast majority of people mask.”

Carter pointed out that while high schoolers have already had the opportunity to get the vaccine, it is not approved for children 12 and under.

“In the high school, I think it would be very reasonable not to mandate masks,” she said, adding it should be mandated at the elementary level.

Two of the district’s former Teachers of the Year also defended the move toward requiring masks.

Middle School physical education and health teacher Mark LaBossiere compared the issue to the requirements that athletes wear helmets, or don goggles when doing a science experiment, noting he’s taught disease control and prevention for more than a decade.

“Health sciences have progressed over the years,”LeBossiere said. “We, as a society. have found new and better ways to stay healthy. With this virus, masking in schools is one of those ways.”

LeBossiere said he is the parent of two children with rare auto immune disorders.

“Please take another look at the objectives that I have taught to your children, and make the right choice for mine,” he said. 

Elementary school reading specialist and literacy coach Tracy Lafreniere compared masking to school policy regarding peanut allergies.

“Everything we do is a layer of protection for our most vulnerable students,” she said.

But at times, testimony favoring masks was met with interruptions, jeering and insults.

“I find the lack of civility very troubling,” said middle school music teacher Rosanna Campbell. “I really hope this is not how parents teach their children to have manners in public.”

Campbell said she disagrees with those who believe they know more about the issue than health authorities.

“I listened to the medical doctor and you know why? She is the expert,” Campbell said. “I’m disturbed and troubled by some of the frightening and inflammatory statements made earlier. You’re saying it’s your freedom. Where’s my child’s freedom to breathe without getting a deadly disease?”

As she spoke, remarks toward the educator could be heard through the online audio.

“I thank God my kids don’t have you as a teacher,” one man said.

When Aleksandra Norton approached the podium and said that she doesn’t currently live in town, she was met with shouts of “sit down.” Norton said she recently moved due to, “Covid-related reasons.”

“We may not agree on everything. What we can agree on is providing a safe and healthy environment for our community,” Norton said. “I care about this community. The most effective tool in risk assessment is masking.”

David de la Cruz, the husband of Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, called for a show of hands from those in attendance opposed to a mandate, and the vast majority appeared to go up.

“These are your constituents,” he said.

April Lombardi pointed to the increase in hospital beds for pediatric mental health patients suffering from depression due to COVID-19.

“As parents we know what is in the best interest of our children,” she said. “It is not something to be taken lightly. These kids need to see somebody smile during the day. These kids need to know everything is going to be ok. There has to be some sort of resolution so the kids who are going to suffer the most have options.”

It was only Lombardi’s husband, School Committee Chairman James Lombardi, who ultimately cast a vote against making masks a requirement.

“I do not think there is any question that the pandemic hurt a lot of our children educationally, mentally, and in ways we may not know for years or never know,” Chairman Lombardi said. “Thoughts of suicide increased from 10.7 percent to 25.5 percent in young adults from 2018 to August 20.”

“We need to get our children back to normalcy,” he added, pointing to concerns for students with sensory issues and other special needs. “I do not believe one size fits all.”

Others said that face coverings are a far better alternative to distance learning, including North Smithfield High School Senior Ethan Daigneault.

“It was a much bigger issue to be stuck online,” said Daigneault. “I would much rather go to school five days a week having to wear a mask in school.”

Meo cited similar concerns.

“Look what’s happening to the children in Florida and Texas right now,” Meo said. “That should be enough of a reason alone to mandate masks, and it’s scary. Universal masking is our only line of defense.”

Meo said that in her many years serving, “I can’t think of a topic that has had such opposing points of view or such vitriol, or honestly, such rudeness. I honestly can’t believe that this is the citizenry of North Smithfield.”

“There’s no way that we can please everyone. I’m following my heart,” Meo said. “Our mission is to provide a healthy learning environment for our students. This is a decision that cannot be based on emotions or politics.”

Hers was just the first several passionate statements on the new policy from board members.

“We serve because we want to improve all schools for all students,” said Committee member Peg Votta. “It is our duty to address the health and welfare of all students. This is about the health and safety of each and every student – nothing more.”

“The single most important thing we can do is get all students back to school every day. The safest way to do that is to require masks,” Votta added. 

Jones said he received more than 120 emails and text messages about the issue, with the overwhelming majority favoring masks. Still, he added of mask opponents, “They care about their kids, and they care about their community, just as much as those in favor of masking.”

Jones said he sympathizes with the toll the virus has taken on families, but added of the virus, “Just because I’m sick and tired of it doesn’t mean it goes away.”

Of the concerns regarding depression and difficulties in learning, Jones said that all of the issues are magnified by distance learning.

“We are seeing districts close,” he said.

The explanation was met with some jeers and shouting, and Jones shot back, “It’s unconscionable that we don’t do something to protect our kids.”

“I would rather lose this election coming up than have one kid get COVID,” he said. “Elections don’t matter. Kids do.”

With several motions, Jones put the final authority regarding district mask policy with the School Committee, rather than the superintendent, and made masks a requirement through September 30.

Chairman Lombardi later told NRI NOW the board intends to take a second vote to finalize the short-term policy change on Friday, Aug. 20 at 5 p.m.

The mandate is expected to expire if the board does not revisit the issue next month.

The requirement puts North Smithfield in line with 80 percent of districts in the state that have issued mask mandates, and while the Department of Education does not have the authority to order that all children wear masks, the Rhode Island K-9 council voted this week to reject any learning plan for September that does not include a mask requirement.

The full video from the meeting can be found here.

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