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Harford school board dismisses unruly audience from meeting as parents rally against mask mandate

The Harford County Board of Education temporarily suspended its meeting and threw out attendees Monday night in Bel Air after people who came to criticize the school system for mandating universal masking in its buildings became unruly, shouting and speaking over board members.

A group of parents, children and elected officials showed up prior to the board meeting to protest with signs and megaphones the school system’s recent decision to mandate masks for the upcoming school year. Some were there to stay outside and rally and some showed up hoping to get one of the 60 seats inside the meeting room for the in-person meeting.

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When the meeting started, so did the heckling. Attendees criticized school officials for pulling down the blinds preventing them to see the protesters outside. They shouted the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, with emphasis on “liberty and justice for all.”

And when board member David Bauer, who attended virtually, spoke about why wearing masks was the right thing to do and the research he’s seen to prove it, the crowd groaned and made critical comments that made it hard to hear Bauer.

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Throughout the time, Board president Rachel Gauthier warned the crowed that if they could not be quiet, they will be asked to leave.

One man stood up and said “they don’t care about us, they don’t care about our kids. The hell with them,” as he stormed out the room. Two other people followed as they threw their masks to the ground.

“You’re not controlling my kids anymore,” anothersaid.

As the crowd started to jeer, Gauthier temporarily suspended the meeting and asked officers to escort the people from the room. Though some were reluctant and needed to be asked repeatedly, the room was eventually cleared and the meeting resumed about 30 minutes later. Attendees were allowed to enter one by one to participate in public comment but could not stay inside afterward.

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Before the meeting outside, parents and kids held signs that read “my body, my choice,” “oxygen is essential” and “I can’t breathe.”

Protests prior to school board meetings are not new in Harford — a number have been held since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, particularly when students were learning virtually with protesters calling for a return to in-person instruction. Del. Lauren Arikan, a Republican who represents Harford and Baltimore counties, said the turnout Monday was twice the size of the usual.

“People are tired of their kids wearing masks,” Arikan said. “The board’s desire to do this does not reflect the values of our community, which is about personal liberties.”

Arikan said they are disappointed the superintendent made the decision to mandate masks without a vote and that she’s lost too much faith in the board to hope for a reversal and she looks forward to the next election season “so that we can replace them.”

Robert Wagner, a county council member representing District E, also said he’s disappointed in the decision and the school system. He added his constituents are unhappy.

Although majority of the attendants at the rally seemed to be against a mask mandate, Delane Lewis, president of Harford’s Together We Will, said most Harford residents support wearing masks.

“The majority wants to protect children by wearing masks until conditions change,” Lewis said.

She added the system is following the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which recommends students wear masks in schools regardless of vaccination status. And wearing masks is the least they can do to protect children who cannot yet be vaccinated. Vaccines have not yet been approved in children younger than 12.

Lewis said she came to the meeting because it was important to represent the majority of Harford County.

“They can’t be the only voice in the room,” she said of the anti-mask protestors.

Lewis was later booed by the crowd as she signed up to enter the meeting and escorted by police when she left as people in the crowd yelled at her and others wearing purple “Together We Will” shirts.

Henry Gibbons of Edgewood, who said he is a microbiologist, said wearing masks is the right thing to do and places that did not enforce masks, like Georgia and Florida, are seeing the effects, like the packed hospitals.

“Do I like it? No. Do I do it? Yes,” Gibbons said about wearing masks.

“I would certainly hope they wouldn’t put children in danger just because some loud people don’t like putting on a mask,” Sara Baker of Bel Air said just before the crowd started chanting “no more masks.”

As officers were allowing people inside one by one, a woman started yelling at police when they refused to let her kids in without masks.

“I’m not letting my children wear the masks,” she yelled in an officer’s face. Another woman wearing a mask, climbed over the rail past a security guard, grabbed one of the child’s arms and attempted to yank him through. The crowd started cheering “let them in.”

Arikan approached security saying “please let me go in and speak without wearing a mask.” When security refused, Arikan turned to the crowd and said, “everyone should be livid. This is freakin’ insanity.”

When the meeting reconvened after the audience was asked to leave, the crowd outside could still be heard and some were banging on the windows.

Almost all who spoke in person were critical of the mask mandate. Some claimed it obstructed children’s breathing, others stated it impeded on their freedom and one compared it to communism.

When Cristina Trotta was critical of Superintendent Sean Bulson, Gauthier said the board would not allow personal attacks.

“Who are you lady, are you kidding me?” Trotta said before being escorted out of the room. “Get the masks off our children. Who the hell do you think you are? Disgusting.”

Shekinah Hollingsworth, a Republican candidate for House of Delegates in District 34A, said the reaction from parents that day is just the tip of the iceberg.

“When you mess with people’s kids, this is exactly what you get,” she said to the board. “Something has to be done with this or it just gets a whole lot worse.”

Board members said they were disappointed the audience had to leave the meeting but stood by the decision to enforce masks.

Board member Roy Phillips said there was overwhelming evidence that proves its effectiveness, Patrice Ricciardi said it would minimize the amount of students who are in quarantine, Joyce Herold said they do not take those type of decisions lightly, and board vice president Carol Mueller said a parent’s choice to not put a mask on a child takes away everyone else’s choice when their child has to quarantine.

Dr. David Bishai, Harford County’s Health Officer, also spoke about the importance of masks during a meeting presentation after he explained how the delta variant is twice as transmissible and that Maryland is seeing an uptick in cases among school-aged children.

He said it is not true that masks impair oxygen to the body, nor does it impair language development for kids. Masks can, however, cause acne, he said. But it can also slow the spread of COVID, he added when explaining that unmasked districts in southern states have already had schools closed due to outbreaks two weeks into the school year.

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Bulson said they saw the largest outbreak in Harford at Bel Air Elementary School during summer school, when masks were optional, with 11 cases. He also noted that wearing masks could prevent quarantines.

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He said later that the mask mandate isn’t a permanent decision and can be changed if conditions improve.

“Every one of us hoped COVID was in our rearview mirror,” Bulson said. “We didn’t want to be experiencing or making these decisions now.”

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