First Day of School 2021-22

A sign reminding people to wear face masks is displayed on the front of a Livingston Parish elementary school.

During an unruly meeting of Louisiana’s top school board, the discussion on the governor’s statewide mask mandate was shelved when board members voted to adjourn early due to the lack of mask adherence by members of the crowd.

At multiple points, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) told those in attendance that they must wear masks to comply with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide mandate, which covers state buildings.

When audience members showed no signs of following the order, BESE members voted 8-2 to adjourn the meeting prematurely.

Cries of “traitors” and “recall” erupted from the crowd following the vote. At several points, the crowd burst into chants of “no more masks.”

The adjournment signaled the end of a tense meeting of the state’s highest governing school board, which was scheduled to consider an adoption of rules governing COVID-19 protocols.

​​Since BESE ended the meeting without discussion on the issue, the governor’s executive order remains in effect in schools.

The hours-long BESE meeting — which included members going into an executive session — highlighted the divide regarding the indoor mask mandate that Edwards reinstated amid the state’s fourth surge of COVID-19.

The state has seen record-setting case growth and hospitalizations over the last several weeks, with officials calling this the “worst” surge of the deadly virus yet. Louisiana has the nation’s highest growth rate for new COVID-19 cases per capita, and the Department of Health is reporting more than 3,000 COVID-19, hospitalizations, the most since the pandemic began.

The mandate, in effect until at least Sept. 1, includes all indoor public spaces and applies to everyone 5 and older, regardless of vaccination status. It includes all K-12 schools, colleges, and universities.

But it has drawn opposition and support alike.

Edwards’ mask mandate has won support from healthcare and hospital leaders, who have pleaded with the public to do its part in easing the burden on the healthcare system. In a letter this week, the Louisiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated that the 750-member organization “strongly recommends” universal masking while indoors in schools.

The mask mandate is also in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Despite support from those in the medical field, Edwards’ mask mandate has drawn the ire of Attorney General Jeff Landry, lawmakers, and angry parents regarding its effectiveness and constitutionality.

On Aug. 6, Landry, who has clashed with Edwards on a wide range of issues related to the pandemic, issued an opinion saying that BESE — not the governor — has the final say on whether students should be required to wear masks.

In the opinion, Landry said no entity, other than the Legislature, “may supersede any action of BESE undertaken to supervise or control education in this State.”

In response to Landry’s opinion, Edwards has said that he has the authority during a public health emergency to issue a mask mandate. The governor, a lawyer, has called Landry’s opinion “completely wrong” as well as “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

This week, 63 members of the Louisiana House of Representatives asked BESE to allow local school districts to make their own policies regarding mask mandates for K-12 students. In the letter, lawmakers said BESE “can establish a position that gives direction to each school board based on local health risks.”

“Please use your Constitutional authority to protect Louisiana families and give direction to our local school boards and its parents,” the letter said.

The back-and-forth between Edwards and Landry along with the letter from lawmakers led to Wednesday’s meeting, which drew many angry parents and guardians, most of which were unmasked.

Despite BESE staff telling people to mask up, members of the crowd refused and erupted into angry protests at various point. One of those protesting was Rev. Tony Spell, the Central pastor who made national headlines for refusing to comply with Edwards’ COVID-19 proclamations early in the pandemic.

“Enough is enough,” Spell said in a video captured by a reporter from USA Today. “If you want to wear the mask, wear the mask. But don’t infringe on my freedom.”

BESE President Sandy Holloway and board members pleaded with the crowd to allow the board to conduct business in “an orderly fashion.” 

“If the board is not able to continue in an orderly meeting, then the meeting will be adjourned and we won’t get to the conversation you’re wanting to,” Morris said.

Many in the crowd continued to defy the request, which led to a board member making the motion to adjourn. All but two voted in support of adjournment.

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