By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
GREENVILLE — Parents, students and community members incensed over COVID mask mandates in the schools flooded into Monday’s board of education meeting to voice their concerns.
Earlier in the day, a student protest was held also opposing the mask mandate.
The board of education refused to officially start the meeting because numerous people in the audience would not don a face mask. Under an executive order issued by Gov. Kathy Hochul, masks are required in all school buildings statewide.
“I am not going to break the law,” Board of Education President Tracy Young said.
Several individuals in the audience challenged the legality of the mandate, but the board declined to officially start the meeting until everyone had a mask on.
“It is my understanding that there is an executive order requiring that masks be worn in schools, so we are asking that all individuals in a school setting please put on a mask,” Young said. “As soon as we follow that, we can start the meeting and have an open forum, which I believe is what everyone came for.”
For three hours, audience members spoke about the mask mandate and many went up to the podium to do so, even though the meeting had not officially begun.
“This has been squashed in the Supreme Court, so you may have some control over our children, for now, but you don’t control us,” one man said. “We are free people. We don’t have to wear masks. Did you ever see someone get arrested for not wearing a mask?”
At one point, the board recessed for 15 minutes and left the room to allow tempers to cool. When they returned, most remained in the audience.
Parent Amanda Calvo has three children in the district and demanded students not be required to wear masks.
“I stand here tonight with an absolute stance for freedom — freedom for my children and all children to decide if masking is right for them,” Calvo said. “I do not stand here making a choice for others. I teach my children in my home to respect other individuals’ choices in all aspects.”
The school board is not responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, Calvo said, “but you are responsible for standing up for what is morally right. You are on notice — this is unconstitutional, and the line is being drawn. You have stopped supporting our children.”
Opponents to the mandate said the masks are ineffective in fighting the virus, uncomfortable, unhealthy, prevent proper socialization, and have negatively impacted their children.
“It’s really sad — I have watched these kids for the past two years and they are not the same kids,” Eric Cangelosi said. “It’s disgusting. My boys have been unlawfully muzzled with dangerous face masks for about two years now and I say, enough is enough.”
Tricia Surrano, who has three students in the district, said she is one of several people who have collected 189 Greenville signatures on a petition opposing the mask mandate.
Face masks have harmed her children, she said, including her first grader, who has speech articulation issues and mispronounces some words, and has been unable to learn proper enunciation because masks cover his teachers’ faces.
“The primary intervention for preventing articulation delays is watching another person’s mouth move as they speak. That’s it — it’s that easy,” Surrano said. “It usually happens organically and children grow out of it because teachers at early grade levels are trained to enunciate and articulate with exaggerated facial expressions… because of masks, my son spends more than 30 hours per week learning with minimal exposure to the main technique that will help him with articulation.”
She said her older children have begun avoiding school because of face masks and have experienced physical symptoms as a result of anxiety due to the mandate.
“This has snowballed into a mental health crisis,” Surrano said. “Our children have been conditioned to be afraid and to consider death as an outcome of sickness. Masks are a symbol of that fear.”
Gina Blenis expressed anger that spectators at the Super Bowl and other sporting events don’t wear masks, yet her children are required to do so for many hours at a time.
“When I see these large groups of people gathered together maskless, not following the same senseless, unconstitutional mask mandates that my children have to, it makes me even more infuriated that my children must wear a mask to receive an education,” she said.
One parent began shouting about the mandate, mocked the board for not officially beginning the meeting over the mask requirement and challenged the efficacy of masks.
“When my two twins went to the elementary school, they came home the happiest little sons of bit**s there were. Happiest kids,” he said. “All of a sudden, the pandemic — which is not your fault… but you know what, when there’s a problem, you people on this board can fix it. You have the power. You are choosing not to because of this.”
A high school student went to the podium and said her teachers have been disrespectful asking her to properly wear her mask, and said at one point the mask was taped to her face. She said a teacher threatened to staple it on her if she refused to comply with the mandate.
“It’s literally abuse — I feel hurt every day,” the student said, adding that she feels bullied by other students and discriminated against for not being vaccinated against the virus.
Board of Education Vice President Jay Goodman said he knows people are angry and that emotions are running high when the audience demanded the board respond to their comments.
“I understand that it is frustrating that we just sit here and listen,” he said. “I appreciate when people email or come in and talk, I appreciate the engagement — we need to hear all of this, but in the meetings, the way we have always done it is that in the open forum we are here to listen and not respond…. That said, I know it takes courage to stand up and voice your opinion, and I appreciate it.”
Young pointed out that the school district could be penalized, both financially and in other ways, if they don’t comply with the school mask mandate from the governor.
“Not following the mandates, the administrators can lose their licenses,” Young said. “Not following the mandates, we could put $16 million of our budget at risk. I see some heads shaking… we evaluate risk and I can’t sit here and vote for something that is going to put $16 million in jeopardy.”
Hochul has threatened to defund school districts that do not enforce the mandate.
The audience erupted in anger, saying the state funds are not worth the children’s health.
“What about the kids’ mental health? Some of these kids have lost their social skills — they won’t even sit with their families at dinner because they are afraid,” one man said.
Board of Education member James Goode Jr. participated in the meeting virtually because he said he has tested positive for COVID and is still under quarantine. He said it is the board’s intention to work with the community.
“It is clear that everyone is frustrated,” Goode said. “It is affecting not only the masks, but it is affecting people’s school experiences, which nobody wants a negative impact like that…. My main goal is to make sure that everyone in the community is heard and that we work together.”
The school mask mandate is expected to be re-evaluated by the governor in the first week in March after students return from winter break.