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Mask mandate to stay for K-12 schools, BESE won't call special meeting after maskless protests end last one early

BESE defended their 8-2 decision to adjourn a meeting last week before the mask debate could begin, and said they have no plans to take the issue up again.

BATON ROUGE, La. — The state board of education announced they will not take up a second discussion of the governor's mask mandate's place in Louisiana schools after their first was disrupted by a crowd of maskless protesters. 

This means schools in Louisiana will be required to follow Gov. John Bel Edwards' indoor mask mandate despite an opinion from Attorney General Jeff Landry indicating the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had the final say about whether it applied to K-12 classrooms. 

In a statement released Sunday night, the board, commonly referred to as BESE, defended their 8-2 decision to adjourn a meeting last week before the mask debate could begin, and said they have no plans to take the issue up again. 

"When forced to make that decision last week, we were left with no choice but to prioritize the safety and health of those in the room over citizens who were refusing to follow the law, adhere to basic rules of order – all while putting the health of others at risk," the board wrote.  

The full statement is at the bottom of this article. 

Last week, BESE placed Landry's opinion at the bottom of their agenda for a regularly scheduled meeting. If they had taken up the debate, they would have discussed and eventually voted on a possible exemption from the mask mandate. 

But they never got the chance. 

The meeting was frequently interrupted by a crowd of several dozen people against the use of masks in classrooms.

This group refused to wear masks in the meeting hall despite multiple requests from BESE members. At the beginning of the meeting, they were told that the governor's mask mandate applied in the building and that anybody claiming a medical exemption could go to an overflow room set up for social distancing. 

Nobody took them up on the offer, and the masks stayed off. 

The governor's mask mandate applies to all indoor spaces in Louisiana, including the building where the board was meeting. 

Instead, members of the crowd began shouting at the board members

"I can't hear you with the masks on. I read lips and I'm sick of it," one woman shouted. 

A sign language interpreter was at the front of the room, unmasked, and was mouthing along with the board members as they spoke, in a common ASL practice to accommodate for lip reading.

A chant of "No more masks" rose from the crowd shortly after. 

As they neared the end of the agenda, the mask mandate, board members appeared to become more irritated with the audience's repeated outbursts. 

Shortly before noon, the board announced they would be taking a recess for lunch, angering the crowd. As the clamor increased in volume, board members threatened to simply adjourn the meeting instead. 

That threat kicked off an internal conflict among the crowd, with some reversing and promising to wear the masks while others stood fast in their refusal. 

Seeing this, the board raised a motion to adjourn. Despite protests from the crowd, the motion carried 8-2 and the board members filed out of the room. 

Because BESE will not take up the mask mandate issue again, Edwards' current mask mandate remains legally unchallenged in schools. The executive order is effective until Sept. 1, but Edwards has extended previous mask mandates. 

“BESE Members are no strangers to meetings that last 10 or more hours on any given day, rich with opportunities for the public to voice their concerns about issues in education. We welcome and expect to hear long hours of differing opinions by impassioned citizens who want nothing but the very best for their children and the children in our state. This is why the item was added as part of the standard Board business on our August 18th meeting agenda and why the Board offered numerous opportunities for compliance with the lawful mask mandate. It is also why two adjacent rooms with social distancing and live streaming for those refusing or unable to wear masks were made available to all, and why repeatedly requests to attendees to restore order in the room were made - so that the Board could carry on with its business for the day, which included providing time on the agenda designated for their public comment and discussion about the mask mandate in public schools. 

It was only after more than five requests without compliance, outbursts by the crowd from protesters arguing across the room, and “No more masks, No more masks” and “We will not comply, we will not comply” chants from the crowd, after medical experts were unable to safely testify, after numerous requests were made from officials and audience members that the Board determined adjournment was necessary to ensure the safety, health, and well being of all citizens in attendance.

As elected officials, we understand our responsibility to listen to those who elect us. We have just as great a responsibility to follow the laws of the State of Louisiana and to fulfill our duty to make decisions to protect the safety, health, and wellbeing of those who elect us as well.  When forced to make that decision last week, we were left with no choice but to prioritize the safety and health of those in the room over citizens who were refusing to follow the law, adhere to basic rules of order – all while putting the health of others at risk.  As educators and education leaders, we have to be role models for children. Just as we wouldn’t allow this behavior in schools, neither will we tolerate refusal to follow the law, intimidation, bullying tactics, and putting the health and safety of attendees at risk during our Board meetings.

Throughout this pandemic – as we have needed to make tough decisions for students and teachers – we have held tightly to our responsibility to both protect the health and wellbeing of students and teachers while also ensuring students are being educated. These same core values continue to drive every decision we are required to make during this public health emergency. We remain committed to standing with all elected leaders who are prepared to act on these same core values.

We will continue to prove through our actions that we prioritize and value health, human life, and respect for the laws that govern our state and country – just as we did with our vote to adjourn last week. We will not put the safety, health, and wellbeing of citizens at risk.

The governor’s current executive order is in effect until September 1st.  There are no plans to call a special meeting."

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