WESTOVER — Before it even started Somerset County Board of Education Chair Penny Nicholson gaveled to close the regularly scheduled September meeting when some members of the public refused to wear a face covering or leave the building at her request or the request of deputies.
The meeting has been rescheduled to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 28 and will be livestreamed on the Board of Education’s YouTube channel www.youtube.com/c/BoardMeetingSCPS.
The mask optional policy approved unanimously by the local board on Sept. 2 was superseded 12 days later by state mandate. It was on Sept. 14 when the General Assembly’s Administrative, Executive and Legislative (AELR) Committee affirmed the State Board of Education’s Aug. 26 vote requiring masks in schools.
On the Somerset County Board of Education’s agenda for Sept. 21 was approval of Policy 200-28 titled "Face Coverings in School Facilities" which says "The State regulation shall be the policy of the Somerset County Board of Education in regards to masking for so long as it is in full force and in effect."
The proposed policy applies to anyone in a school building, and includes an attachment citing exceptions the state allowed such as children under age 2, those with a disability preventing mask wearing, and those engaged in exercise or playing a musical instrument, among others.
The proposed policy would override Masking Policy 200-27 which declared mask wearing "a choice" for employees, students and the public. Masks had been required until July 1 when Gov. Larry Hogan lifted a statewide mask mandate, but it continues to be the rule on school buses as they are federally regulated.
It was the September 2020 meeting when the board amended Public Participation Policy 100-12 which deleted the opportunity for the public to appear before the board, instead, those who want to speak in person must follow the Request to Appear Policy 100-10.
Some on the agenda wanted to take issue with the Public Participation policy, and others the mask policy. Somerset Education Association leader Randi Merritt had prepared remarks in support of the mask mandate to help prevent schools from falling back into a virtual mode like last school year.
In a letter to the board she wrote that CDC guidelines regarding close contact and the quarantining of children "can be minimized by masking."
"What we’ve learned...is that children learn best by going to school in person...having an in person teacher leading their journey, surrounded by their classmates and activities.... Following the masking mandate can help us accomplish these goals."
However, before Ms. Merritt or anyone else could speak, the meeting was shutdown.
"Honey, that gavel ain’t worrying me," said one maskless woman after Chairwoman Nicholson banged the gavel.
"We’re taxpayers, we own this building." "We request a different location."
One man wearing a mask asked that everyone else not be penalized "for a couple of people," but without the room coming to order Mrs. Nicholson said following a motion by Vice Chair Troy Brittingham and seconded by member Margo Green Gale that the meeting was over and would be held at another time.
Technically, the meeting had never been opened, and Mrs. Nicholson said afterward she was not surprised about what happened and was not immediately sure when the meeting would be rescheduled although a virtual format was an option.
"I was going to commend them for mask choice," said Tammy Truitt, who was on the agenda to speak but denied the opportunity. She also wanted to bring up the public meeting policy, saying if you request to appear it requires notice eight days notice in advance and there is no agenda published that soon.
She said she does not have access to speak to the board online if it holds a virtual meeting.
"We don’t have a voice," said Matt Lankford, who was also scheduled to speak. "You write an email and they read it in closed session."
Also on the agenda were the second reading and final votes on Policies 500-4 and 500-19 which address curriculum development and book selection for libraries, both having been through first reader in December but extensively revised since then.
Mr. Lankford has been watching these closely as well to ensure the public has a chance to be involved.
At 4 p.m. when Tuesday’s meeting opened to go into closed session, Chairwoman Nicholson thanked board member Bill McInturff for wearing his mask and asked member Caleb Shores to wear one as it was state board policy.
Mr. Shores replied that a medical issue precluded him from wearing a mask, to which the chair asked for a note from his doctor.
"I’m not a school child, I’m not going to provide anybody my medical information. That is mine," Mr. Shores said, adding that he hoped others who wanted to speak later would get their chance.
As he gathered his materials he said, "Good luck" to Mr. McInturff, and walked out.
Mr. Shores had worn a mask or gaiter through June when meetings were in-person. Had he refused to leave Mrs. Nicholson was first going to ask for a motion to postpone the meeting, although attorney Fulton Jeffers said they still had a quorum so they continued into a closed session.
Prior to the start of the 6 p.m. open session Mr. McInturff went outside to see if Mr. Shores was still present but he was not.
The state board’s mask policy ends Feb. 22 unless renewed.