SWANTON — After the Missisquoi Valley Union school board abruptly canceled its previous meeting over wearing face masks, the school district brought in a Franklin County Sheriff’s deputy to attend Thursday’s meeting.
The idea, MVUSD board chair Chris Shepard said, was to make sure people “stayed respectful,” and in that respect, it worked.
Unlike in previous meetings, he said, public comment went peacefully and there was no shouting in the parking lot afterward. The deputy did not, however, ensure that everyone wore masks, the conflict that had prompted the board to cancel its Sept. 7 meeting.
Several members of the audience in the Sept. 16 meeting refused to wear masks, but the board opted to continue holding it, anyway. The board later voted unanimously to require masks for attendance at board meetings, but Shepard told the Messenger it didn't yet have a way to enforce that requirement.
If anyone refuses, he said, the board would have to rely on another party to enforce the mask mandate or take action.
The board also held a vote on amending the agenda to limit items to those only directly related to school functions, but it failed 4-4.
Several audience members spoke out against the mask mandate, saying they would refuse to “co-parent with the government,” advocating for parental rights and choice and threatening the school board’s positions with votes come election season.
Some residents indirectly accused the district of choosing to take money from the government or organizations in exchange for promoting methods like masking and vaccination.
“You’re cashing in," Essex resident Jim Sexton told the school board. “You’re putting the money ahead of the students…”
“You’re just killing our children,” his wife Shirley said. “You’re hurting our children, can you not see that?”
Swanton resident Tammy Underwood maintained that the vaccines, tests and masks were not only ineffective but harmful. She said she had elected to homeschool her son, Caleb, rather than have him in-person where he would have to abide by school policy.
“He was a junior at MVU until you decided to run us out of the school because I would not put a mask on his face,” Tammy said. “You all look ridiculous with those masks on, because they don’t work.”
Each of the speeches against mandates was met with applause from the audience.
Protests and cancellations
Shepard had canceled the board’s scheduled Sept. 7 meeting before calling it to order because audience members declined to wear a mask, the Messenger reported.
He offered to provide masks and reminded people they could attend on Zoom.
“Unfortunately, if you don’t have a mask, then we don’t have a meeting,” he said then.
The prior meeting, on Aug. 23, drew around 50 attendees protesting MVU’s Aug. 10 vote to follow state mask guidance and mandate mask-wearing in schools.
Shepard said that while some parents expressed disagreement in the Aug. 19 and Sept. 7 meetings, a large portion of the insults and “heckling” was outside in the parking lot.
Gov. Phil Scott’s administration had issued guidance for all students and staff in early August to continue wearing masks indoors while in school until Oct. 4, but it ultimately has left the decision to enforce mask mandates to districts.
Open meetings laws
Shepard said the board is continuing to work with legal counsel to stay in compliance with open meetings laws.
Though there is nothing in Vermont’s open meetings laws regarding face covering, Secretary of State Jim Condos previously told the Messenger municipalities have the right to enforce mask mandates for their meetings and that both towns and schools count as municipalities.
Open meeting law dictates that the meeting chairperson can establish “reasonable rules” for public comment that strike a balance between encouraging comment and allowing for efficiency by managing time, safeguarding orderly proceedings and ensuring proper decorum.
Shepard said he will be working with Condos’ office to develop a plan.