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Chaotic Buckingham meeting ends in decision on masks

Shouting, booing and angry statements echoed throughout the room Tuesday night, Aug. 3, during the Buckingham County School Board meeting as members of the public came out in large numbers to express their concerns.

More than 36 parents and concerned citizens stepped up to the podium to vent their frustrations and address the board. Although the subject of a potential mask requirement was the primary topic being discussed, speakers also regularly brought up issues such as transgender bathroom use, critical race theory and school dress codes.

Previously, school districts were permitted to make mask wearing optional this school year.

The majority of speakers at the meeting made it clear they were not in favor of the school requiring face masks for students, citing a variety of reasons from health data to effects on a child’s emotional development.

Geoffrey Bruschi, a resident who is working on a dissertation in theological anthropology, told the board members on Tuesday that he was concerned about “unintended consequences” of masking, stating studies have shown children have difficulty recognizing any emotion but fear on the face of a masked individual.

“Please consider unmasking our children,” Bruschi asked the board. “I don’t want to have a child when I’m in my 60s and 70s caring for me in a nursing home that doesn’t understand empathy.”

“COVID has a 0.000005547% chance of killing a child 18 years and under,” speaker Paul Anderson said. “But yet, we mask them.”

As the night went on, the School Board meeting became more and more chaotic and unruly. Members of the public regularly shouted over board members as they spoke, a speaker was escorted off the podium after refusing the leave once their three minutes of speaking time had expired and Buckingham County Public Schools (BCPS) Superintendent Dr. Daisy Hicks was loudly booed as she explained the county was in a high state of transmission for COVID-19.

Another speaker during the public comments section of the meeting was Buckingham County Board of Supervisors member Danny Allen. Allen not only told School Board members he was hard-set against masking up students and allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice but also implied he would not grant the board any further funding requests until the transgender policy is revisited.

“Until then, I’m not going to work with you when you come back to ask for money from the Board (of Supervisors),” Allen said.

While Allen may have threatened to withhold funds, other threats appeared to be made Tuesday night, including speaker Doris Toney. Toney, like many people at the meeting, deferred her three minutes of allotted public comment time to Anderson, stating, “Perhaps it’s a good thing that I pass my time to Mr. Anderson, because I could be spending my first night in jail.”

When it came time to vote on a potential mask mandate, a motion was originally made by School Board Member Pamela Morris and seconded by Board Chair Theresa Bryant to make masks optional throughout the school system provided students possessed a signed opt-in or opt-out form from parents/guardians.

School Board members Morris, Bryant and Jacqueline Newton voted yes to the motion, while members Joii Goodman, Rachel Castello-Dunn, Sherry Ragland and Board Vice Chair Thomas Hutcherson Jr. voted no, causing the motion to fail.

Audience members, angered, began to storm out of the meeting.

“We’re leaving because you people don’t even listen,” yelled one citizen.

“I’m telling you I’m going to run for the School Board,” shouted another. “Get ready.”

As voices stirred and citizens walked out, a second motion was made by Ragland and seconded by Hutcherson Jr. to approve the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) recommended mitigation strategy of requiring masks for students during the start of the new school year.

Following a vote, Board Chair Bryant announced to angry audience members that the motion had passed. However, the vote was actually tied 3-3, with Goodman, Hutcherson and Ragland voting in favor, Morris, Bryant and Castello-Dunn voting against the motion and Newton abstaining.

Following a closed session period, the board clarified the motion with a re-vote in which Newton voted in favor of a mask policy.

Anderson, who was called upon several times during the meeting by speakers who deferred their own three minutes of public speaking time to him, referenced on Tuesday night the Facebook group Citizens for Better Buckingham Schools.

Anderson said he created the group in July of this year with the goal of bringing open, honest civil discussion on how to better the county’s schools after interactions related to his own children’s education sparked concern.

Monday, Aug. 9, Anderson said he chose to focus his talking points on Tuesday night around COVID-19 restrictions, critical race theory, transgender policies and BCPS rankings according to Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) statistics because he feels these topics “are the first lines holding BCPS back.”

“Children cannot learn at max potential while masked,” Anderson said. “(Critical race theory) teaches us to not only judge, but judge by skin tone (ideals we as a country have fought for decades). Transgender policies were passed in darkness and, all done in darkness is concerning. And sadly, the VDOE statistics speak for themselves. It’s a dark picture.”

Anderson said he felt the board showed up Tuesday with its mind made up on enforcing mask restrictions.

“The vast majority of speakers spoke with passion, fact and expertise which challenged the protectionist ideals of the School Board,” he said.

Anderson added there were speakers who were not part of the Citizens for Better Buckingham Schools Facebook page present during the School Board meeting who brought a militant approach to their speeches and hurt the group’s overall cause.

Several school officials expressed discontent with the way citizens interacted with the board during the meeting.

“I am not nor have I ever been in favor of ‘mandates,’” Goodman said Monday. “I am in favor of freedom which manifests itself by way of individual choice that every American citizen is blessed with. With that being said, I can understand any trepidation that someone may have due to the pandemic.”

Goodman said he believed the meeting went fine, adding however that it is important that proper respect is observed at future meetings not for individuals alone, but for the process of the Republic.

“People have a right to voice their concerns to their elected leadership, but that does not give license to threaten, intimidate or act disrespectfully of their fellow citizens. So I, therefore, do not support any ideology that divides us as Americans and does not protect the future of our children.”

“Our latest meeting to consider the use of masks for the beginning of the school year was contentious, and we hope that in the future everyone will be respectful in their comments,” Bryant said Monday. “ We welcome public comment, but it should be a time to address the board in a respectful manner. We will continue to monitor the use of masks through guidance from the CDC and the Piedmont Health District. We are also looking forward to the beginning of the school year and the opportunity to help our students learn in a safe school setting.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Hicks presented the findings of a schoolwide survey which asked parents, guardians and staff if they would like Option 1 — to see masking required for all students and staff, or Option 2 — masking required for all employees/students grades pre-K through sixth and all other unvaccinated students/employees grades 7-12.

Of the 515 people who completed the survey, 60% selected Option 1 and 40% selected Option 2.

Many audience members did not agree with the study, citing the only options were to “mask our students or mask our students.”

Hicks said the survey only included the two options as an optional mask policy was not recommended in CDC guidance at the time.

“I am hopeful that we can come together as a community for our students,” Hicks said Monday. “The only way we can make our schools better is to work together. We can accomplish so much more by working together and agreeing to disagree and being respectful and kind, even if we may not agree with each other’s views or decisions.”

Another school board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 11, at 6 p.m.