LIVINGSTON -- With the upcoming school year days away, parents voiced their frustrations of the student mask mandate during a tense meeting of the Livingston Parish School Board, the result of the governor’s renewed statewide mask mandate that went into effect Aug. 4.
Emotions ran high during the meeting’s public comment period as several parents lobbied their complaints at school board members, who sat in silence as they listened to grievances regarding the necessity of mask-wearing.
Despite the advice of health experts, who have touted mask usage as an effective tool at slowing the spread of COVID-19, parents rattled off unsourced claims that face masks lead to more health ailments and are ineffective, and they claimed the school system was “operating in maladministration” for requiring them.
Multiple parents said they were considering pulling their children out of school if they are forced to wear masks, while others questioned the governor’s authority in issuing a mask mandate. All blasted the district for “not protecting our children” and not standing up to the governor. At times, they repeated the phrase, “We the People.”
“It’s unconstitutional, unamerican, and unnecessary for our children to wear masks,” one woman said, drawing cheers from the other parents gathered in protest.
Following the meeting, Superintendent Joe Murphy said he is open to hearing parents voice their concerns but noted that the district can’t override the governor’s orders.
“Every parent has the right to make the decision for their child, except when we’re in a public health emergency and those decisions may do potential harm to all the other children,” Murphy said. “Livingston Parish Public Schools is responsible for all children. That’s the reason we believe that we need to follow the governor’s mandate and require masks in schools.”
Livingston Parish is not the only district fielding complaints from parents regarding mask usage, but leaders for multiple districts have said that the decision was taken out of their hands with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ most recent proclamation.
In response to the state’s fourth surge of COVID-19, Edwards last week reissued an indoor statewide mask mandate for everyone 5 and older, including anyone enrolled in kindergarten. The mandate applies to students and employees in public K-12 schools and universities in Louisiana.
The renewed mandate has drawn the ire of Attorney General Jeff Landry, a frequent opponent of Edwards during the pandemic who last week provided Department of Justice employees information on how they could get around the mandate to “express their religious and philosophical concerns regarding masks and vaccines.”
Landry later publicly released the framework documents given to his employees via his social media feeds, leading to school leaders across the state being inundated with questions from parents regarding whether or not masks were required.
It resulted in Edwards sending a letter to State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, in which he expressed his reasoning for the indoor mask mandate and also listed the exceptions, which he said were “essentially the same” as those in place for the entirety of the 2020-21 school year.
Edwards also accused Landry of ignoring “the dangerous fourth surge of COVID-19” that has Louisiana No. 1 in the country in case growth.
“I very much appreciate your efforts, and the heroic work of educators in this challenging time,” Edwards wrote in the letter to Brumley. “By adopting these measures - and ignoring those that are unwilling to acknowledge the current crisis - we can keep our kids in school this year and keep them safe.”
Parents who attended last week’s School Board meeting paid no mind to the governor’s repeated claims that he has the authority to enact mandates in a public health emergency, instead bringing their issues to district leaders.
Murphy began the public comments portion of the meeting by reading a brief statement that explained how the school system reached its mask mandate. In his statement, Murphy said the district is “required to follow the directives” within the governor’s proclamation, which is in effect until at least Sept. 1.
Part of the statement is as follows:
“Livingston Parish Public Schools has been consistent with applying guidelines imposed by all governing authorities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Our reopening guidelines for the 2021-22 school year reflect that same commitment that has allowed us to be successful to complete the 2020-21 school year and our summer programs.
“In the case of the statewide public health emergency and the resulting public health proclamation issued Aug. 4, Livingston Parish Public Schools are required to follow the directives within the proclamation.
“As always, our intent is to provide for the health and safety of our students and our staff. We’re also committed to providing face-to-face instruction for all our students and feel these guidelines provide our schools with the best opportunity to safely educate our children for the upcoming school year.”
Despite Murphy’s assertions that the district is following requirements set by the governor, parents were undeterred in their belief that the district should not be requiring masks.
Carrie Fitzgerald, whose child is heading into 9th grade, said she was considering pulling her daughter out of school last year after she’d regularly come home with headaches from all-day mask wearing.
Fitzgerald said it should be a parent’s choice about whether or not their child wears a mask, a comment that led to a few shouts of “Amen” and cheers from the other parents.
“You say you care what’s best for our kids, you are voted to do that, however masks are not what’s best for our kids,” Fitzgerald said.
Tori Hymel said it is “near impossible” to get a medical exemption from a doctor to prevent children from having to wear masks and cited Landry’s guidance that included a religious exemption form.
Hymel said parents have been told by the board and their respective schools that a religious exemption “will not be accepted,” a stance she took issue with.
“By not accepting these religious exemption forms, you are directly violating the U.S. Constitution, which outlines our religious freedoms,” Hymel said before threatening to bring “notarized affidavits showing your maladministration.”
One parent, Lisa Firmin, claimed the system would be requiring a vaccine for children and employees “or possibly turning our schools into COVID testing sites.”
Murphy adamantly refuted those claims after the meeting.
“We have no intention of requiring the vaccine for students, requiring the vaccine for employees, or using our schools as testing sites for COVID,” Murphy said.
The drama regarding mask usage in schools spilled into Friday, when Landry released an opinion suggesting the governor does not have legal authority to require masking in schools.
Edwards responded to the opinion in his weekly COVID-19 press conference later that evening, saying Landry was “completely wrong” and reiterating his “authority and obligation under the current circumstance to declare public health emergencies.”
“I think the Attorney General is completely wrong,” Edwards said. “Not only is he wrong, he is going out of his way to undermine public confidence in the basic mitigation measures that will slow transmissions at a time when we need it more than at any other time in this pandemic.
“It is sad, it’s regrettable, it’s also irresponsible and it is dangerous.”
Edwards, who ended the original mandate in May, said the renewed masking requirement was in response to the state’s “unprecedented” surge that is leading to more cases and hospitalizations than ever.
Last week, the state broke its record for most COVID-19 hospitalizations at one time in four consecutive days. Dr. Joe Kanter, the state health officer, said about 15 percent of all emergency room visits are with COVID-like symptoms, an “all-time high for Louisiana.”
And different from previous surges, the current one is affecting children at an “alarming” rate, Edwards and Kanter said. In one day last week, more than 2,000 COVID-19 cases were reported among children.
“In light of the surge and the CDC recommendations, I have to ask: Why wouldn’t we send our kids to school with a mask on?” Edwards said during the press conference.
Livingston Parish schools begin the 2021-22 school year on Wednesday, Aug. 11, when students whose last names start with A-K report to campus, followed by students whose last names begin with L-Z the next day.
All students report to campus on Friday, Aug. 13.
Unlike last year when schools began in a hybrid model of learning, schools will open with traditional face-to-face instruction. There are roughly 26,000 students in the Livingston Parish Public Schools system, as well as around 4,000 employees.