With the 2021-2022 school year underway across the Chagrin Valley and Geauga County, the conversation on mask mandates in school has come to the forefront as a heated and controversial topic. The Ohio Department of Health has defaulted to individual districts to decide on their own masking policies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and respective Delta variant.

More than 100 parents and community members put the West Geauga Local School Board under fire during their regular meeting Monday in response to their mask mandate, calling them communists, threatening legal action and disrupting routine matters.

Supporters of the mask policy were also in attendance – wearing masks alongside all board members and attending school administrators; however, they did not have an opportunity to speak during the meeting.

On Aug. 19, the West Geauga Local Schools updated their school policy to require masks for the first quarter of school, Aug. 25 through Oct. 22, in all indoor facilities as well as 3-foot social distancing in response to rising cases of the highly contagious coronavirus.

In response, community members packed into the board office to voice their opposition, forcing the relocation of the Monday meeting to the West Geauga Middle School gymnasium to accommodate the high turnout. The meeting was also streamed live via YouTube.

In speaking out against the mandate, some audience members and participants even warned of potential protests outside board members’ homes. At the start of the meeting, attendees interrupted school board proceedings to shout that they were unable to hear, later disrupting with chanting and accusations that the board members are communists.

Jonathan Broadbent, a Newbury resident, the first to speak in the audience participation segment of the meeting, stated the school board has deviated from their “one sole” objective, “the betterment and enrichment of the children of West Geauga schools.”

Mr. Broadbent claimed that the board took into consideration “outside influence” when making their decision, presenting a map of Geauga County, to require masking. He named several area schools and school districts within and outside Geauga that also required masking, including Cardinal Local Schools – who were slated to revisit the decision for a new vote Wednesday night.

“That to me as a new taxpayer is frustrating and counterproductive to the best interests of the children,” said Mr. Broadbent, who pointed out that he recently moved into the district for its educational opportunities.

His wife, Tiffany Broadbent, also spoke to the policy. She said she is opposed to the mandate and claimed it to be medical intervention that blocks a child’s ability to breathe properly.

This is different from requiring immunizations for Ohio public schools, she said, because parents have had the opportunity to assess a risk-benefit analysis with long-term data. This isn’t the case with COVID-19 policy, she said.

“The breath has two components. We breathe in and we breathe out, and there are specific reasons for both of them. And blocking one of those reasons all day for a child is not a good idea,” she said as the audience lifted into uproarious applause. “In mom terms, it’s wrong.”

She further stated that there is “not a compelling reason” to mask children due to the lack of an existing study of the lasting effects of masking on young students in a school setting. She followed up by saying that wearing a mask forces children to breathe back in “nasty things” their bodies are trying to get rid of through exhaling.

Children’s immune systems need to deal with COVID-19 or the flu, she said, not whatever gets trapped in their masks.

U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel, a Republican from Beachwood, a former state representative for the 17th District, former state treasurer and father of three young children, also attended the meeting and said masks are a form of child abuse.

“What you are doing by forcing kids to put masks on themselves is using kids to be human shields to protect adults,” Mr. Mandel said, adding that child deaths related to COVID-19 are less than accidental drownings.

“We didn’t close swimming pools throughout the state this summer,” he said, “but you’re trying to close these kids’ faces from each other.”

Per the Ohio Revised Code (Chapter 3701-31), safety regulations such as fencing around pools are required to prevent accidental drownings as well as unauthorized use of private pools.

Chester resident Kayla Flowers said her 6-year-old son developed hypercapnia, excessive carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, “typically caused by inadequate respiration,” from wearing masks in school last year.

She accused the board of not taking parents’ freedom to choose what’s right for their children seriously.

“Wearing masks is not an inconsequential issue. If you actually read the information many parents have sent you, including many governmentally approved studies, you would agree with that statement and not just willy-nilly approve a mask mandate that has no real science to back it,” she told the board.

Maria Ivonne Gerard Roldain of Chester prefaced her comments with a blessing before sharing how she fell “in love” with the U.S. Constitution upon becoming a U.S. citizen, then she recited the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance.

“No opinion is above the law or is the law,” she said, adding that the school board also took an oath to uphold the rights of the U.S. and Ohio constitutions.

Mary Moriarty of Chester cited the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, claiming the federal organization states that masks do nothing unless in a controlled environment like a hospital setting.

OSHA currently has a disclaimer on the federal website that states they are in the process of reviewing and updating their guidance on COVID-19 due to the “evolving nature of the pandemic.”

She said that because the school does not create a controlled environment, they cannot require masks on students.

“These kids are entitled to breathe free air,” Ms. Moriarty said. “Let them. Our Constitution states life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

She said those who want to wear masks can do so, “but you cannot mandate [it] because the states did not mandate the masks.” She added that adults who work in office settings get to take breaks from wearing masks, but kids do not.

According to the West Geauga mask policy, students are not required to wear masks in outdoor settings or when eating during lunch.

Bruce Randau of Chester challenged the board’s legal authority to mandate masks on kids.

“When I send my kid to school on the 25th without a mask,” Mr. Randau said, “if you reprimand him in any way, if you try to force him to wear a mask, I’m going to sue you.”

“He’s not alone,” members of the audience shouted in support.

In addressing the board, Bevin Cormack of Chester held up a sign that read, “This is America, where freedom isn’t free!”

After making a point to wipe the microphone on her jeans, the mother of two in the district asked the board to reconsider their “illegal mask mandate based [on] opinionated guidelines.”

She stated that masks have a “plethora of harmful side effects,” including suicide. She cited the disclaimer of a mask box stating that masks offer no protection to COVID-19.

“I’m not going to sit here and waste my time going through statistics and numbers and because you know these things. This is an intentional act of abuse on your [the board] part,” Ms. Cormack said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports that masks other than properly fitted N-95s do not prevent the wearer from contracting the virus, but adds that masks do, however, reduce the spread of the highly contagious disease.

“Experimental and epidemiological data support community masking to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The prevention benefit of masking is derived from the combination of source control and wearer protection for the mask wearer,” the CDC states. “The relationship between source control and wearer protection is likely complementary and possibly synergistic, so that individual benefit increases with increasing community mask use.”

The full study, most recently updated on May 7 of this year, is available at https://bit.ly/3sGDUpn.

Ms. Cormack said she attended the meeting to bring the community together against “the tyranny that appears to be seeping in.” She accused the board and administrators of not following their own COVID-19 guidelines.

She said she’s concerned about the district potentially seeking “legal options” against those who refuse to wear masks.

In an Aug. 18 update to the community including a frequently asked questions section, Superintendent Richard Markwardt stated, “The district has several legal options available. I am hoping that none will be necessary,” in regard to students who refuse to wear masks.

“Who’s going to hold you guys [the board] accountable?” she asked, stating if the mask mandate moves forward, the public will hold district officials to a higher standard. She called for the air conditioning to be shut off in all administration offices and demanded administrators wear masks all day. She also asked for cameras to be installed in classrooms with authorized passwords for parents to be able to monitor their children’s safety.

Anthony Zaffiro of Chester, after congratulating the school board for surviving after none of them wore masks for their previous Aug. 9 school board meeting, told the board they are projecting their fears on the children, who account for less than 1 percent of COVID-19 deaths nationwide, including seven in Ohio and zero in Geauga County.

According to the Ohio COVID-19 dashboard, six of the seven child deaths were actually Ohio residents.

“I’m very capable of making my own decisions regarding my children’s healthcare. I get to choose what’s appropriate for my child. You’ve taken my parental duty away from me. I do not consent,” he said. “Your fear is what precipitated this malicious decision to muzzle our children in the first place.”

He pointed out that no board members currently have any children in the district.

“Nobody is saying that you can’t wear a mask in school. All we’re saying is that it’s our choice – our choice as parents of West G students, because we’re the ones with the kids, not you, and as residents of the community,” he told the board, adding that he’s not afraid of the virus or the school board.

“There are a lot more parents that are just like me,” he said, telling the board that he’ll remember their decision to require masks the next time they come to him for a levy or their reelection.

Isabella Zaffiro, a freshman at West Geauga High School, also said she was opposed to masks, citing problems with hearing muffled instructions from teachers or not being able to see fellow students’ facial expressions.

“They’re a distraction,” she said of masks, explaining the need to constantly fidget with the masks, how they feel in the heat and how they fog her glasses, among other issues.

Despite parents having told her the board has made up their mind and will not listen to the public’s pleas against mask requirements, she told the board that she trusts they’ll “do the right thing” by repealing the mandate.

Having hit the extended 45-minute limit the board set for public comments, the board concluded the public participation segment of the meeting.

“We understand that this is a divisive issue,” Board President Chet Ramey told the public. “Our priority is to balance the needs and concerns of our students, faculty, staff and community. In the end, we all want the same thing.”

Members of the public interrupted Mr. Ramey, shouting “no masks.”

“We all want to keep our schools open,” he continued, “providing in-person instruction for the maximum number of days, educating the maximum number of students, allowing maximum participation in extracurricular activities.

“We all want our students to flourish,” he concluded, met with the applause of few supporters in attendance.

Members of the audience shouted toward the board, calling them communists and warned them of “peaceful protests” in front of board members’ sidewalks as Ms. Gerard Roldain stood before the board exclaiming “You serve we the people.”

“You are not Americans, you are communists,” another audience member shouted alongside others who attempted to disrupt the meeting’s routine matters with threats of a recall, eventually chanting and clapping in unison, “We the People” and “No more masks.”

One parent vowed that students will come to school unmasked and that those opposed to masks will report parents to Child Protective Services for child abuse for masking their children.

The board carried out their meeting over the chatter and protest of audience members

Sam joined the Times in 2019 and covers several communities and schools in the Chagrin Valley and Geauga County. She also oversees the features/community events and the website. She earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from Kent State University.

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