By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s top school board abruptly ended a chaotic meeting Wednesday without debating whether to challenge Gov. John Bel Edwards’ mask mandate for schools, after a raucous crowd of angry parents packed the hearing room and refused to put on face coverings.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s meeting disintegrated into shouting of “no more masks” as a majority of the hundreds of people in attendance objected when told they must mask up to comply with Edwards’ order, which includes state buildings.
At one point, board members exited the hearing room and controversial pastor Tony Spell, who has repeatedly refused to follow the governor’s coronavirus restrictions, began preaching. Others gave testimonials about their opposition to mask-wearing. When board members returned to the tumultuous scene, they urged the crowd to follow the order or move to a separate room, to no avail.
“We desire to hear from you and to have this discussion,” said board President Sandy Holloway, as she urged people to wear masks in the room.
But she was greeted with outcry from the audience, with one person screaming: “Don’t infringe on our rights!”
Rather than try to enforce the face covering requirement amid the resistance, the board voted 8-2 for member Holly Boffy’s motion to adjourn the hearing — a decision that leaves Edwards’ mask mandate unchallenged. The crowd erupted into shouting about recall efforts for board members, who were escorted out by law enforcement officers.
The Democratic governor enacted the statewide mask mandate earlier this month for all indoor public spaces — including school campuses from kindergarten through college — no matter whether or not someone is vaccinated, as Louisiana saw COVID-19 infections surge.
“It is the only way that we have a reasonable shot to keep schools open and kids safe,” Edwards said Wednesday on his monthly radio show.
He suggested opposition to the mask requirement came from a small, vocal minority.
“There is no reasoning with some people,” Edwards said. He added: “The vast majority of the people in Louisiana do take this seriously.”
Stacy Hudson, a Baton Rouge parent at Wednesday’s education board meeting, brought a sign saying: “UNMASK OUR CHILDREN.” Hudson said she began homeschooling her 6-year-old daughter Sarah because of the mask mandate.
“I wanted that to be a choice of the parents,” Hudson said of wearing a mask. “My child, my choice. She doesn’t want to wear a mask. It’s her body.”
Louisiana had the nation’s highest rate of new coronavirus infections over the last week per capita, and its hospitals are breaking records daily for the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. The state health department reported 3,022 COVID-19 patients in the hospital Wednesday, 91% of them not fully vaccinated.
The mask mandate won support from Louisiana health care leaders who said they are seeing alarming increases in the number and severity of COVID-19 cases among children. But Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, GOP state lawmakers and others object to the requirement and suggest the education board should decide what happens in schools.
Parents who want to send their children to school without masks have shown up at local school board meetings, in protests and at the state Capitol — to outline their complaints.
Before Edwards’ mask mandate, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education declined to enact statewide COVID-19 requirements, with Holloway saying in July that those decisions were best left to local school systems.
The board on Wednesday was supposed to discuss whether it agrees with an opinion from Landry that suggests Edwards’ face covering requirement can’t apply to schools. The attorney general, who frequently spars with the governor, said only the education board and state lawmakers have the authority to issue such a mandate for schools.
Edwards, a lawyer, called the Landry opinion “completely wrong.”
Sixty-three of the 68 Republican lawmakers in the state House have urged the education board to adopt its own rules for COVID-19 safety protocols and give local school districts more control.
The two education board members who voted against adjourning Wednesday’s meeting without the mask debate were Jim Garvey and Michael Melerine. Holloway did not vote.
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley has not backed the mask mandate, saying he leans “to local control” on such issues. But Brumley has not said whether he supports a legal challenge.