Granville students: ‘We can deal with’ masks

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A small group of Granville High School students stood outside and attended the board meeting in support of the school board. The group unanimously said they did not have a problem wearing masks in school and called it a 'minor inconvenience.' (Photo by Austin Crosier)
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By Austin Crosier and Caton Deuso

After more than 50 unmasked parents and students from several school districts disrupted the Whitehall Board of Education meeting shortly after it began on Jan. 31, complaining about Covid-19 restrictions and refusing to mask up, the Granville Board of Education meeting on Feb. 7 saw a smaller but determined group of protesters awaiting its meeting.

Five adults and five children held neon signs with similar sentiments of “our kids have a voice, give them a voice” and “unmask our kids, honor the constitution.”

Six Granville high school students stood outside and eventually joined the meeting inside.

Adam Andrews and Emily Powers said they understood that this is not a decision for the school board to make and that they do not mind wearing masks during school.

“I feel like adults, they’re not the ones in school, we’re the ones in school. We can tell you wearing a mask is not that bad, it’s not abuse. We can deal with it,” Andrews said.

“We also wanted to come to see what’s going on in our town and hear what people are thinking and give an opinion on how students are feeling about it, because I think the majority of students are fine.”

The Whitehall meetings have been virtual for community attendance for months because of the virus restrictions.

“We certainly appreciate the visit to the Board of Education, but we are going to have to ask that unless you decide to mask up, you are in violation of the law and you have to leave,” said Whitehall board president Roxanne Waters.

A group of five adults and five children (one adult was taking a picture as well) gathered at Mary J. Tanner School to protest the statewide mask mandate in schools at the Granville Board of Education meeting on Feb. 7. (Photo by Austin Crosier)

The room erupted with complaints from the unmasked parents and children who represented multiple districts in Washington County, including Granville and Fort Ann, who indicated they were looking for the board to fight against the recent state mask mandate changes.

When Waters motioned for the board to adjourn just 15 minutes into the meeting, a commotion broke out amongst the parents and students.

Prior to the protestors storming in, Waters read a letter from the board to the community regarding the mask mandate by the state. The letter was read again at their rescheduled and virtual meeting on Feb. 6.

“It is important that we make clear the district’s requirements and path forward in regard to masking,” Waters said. “As you may be aware, a court in the New York City area ruled on Monday of last week that the State Department of Health exceeded its authority in enacting the school masking requirements. Since that time there has been significant confusion and misinformation regarding the impact of the court’s decision on public school districts and whether or not the masking requirements remained in effect or had been ‘stayed.’

Waters explained later that the State Department of Health appealed the lower court’s decision to the appellate court and wanted a stay of the lower court’s decision, which was granted. Because of the ruling, public school districts in the state are legally subject to the Department of Health’s masking requirements for the time being.

She said that even though the appellate court could come out with a different decision, the school will continue to enforce the mask mandate.

“To be perfectly clear, this district is an educational institution. This Board of Education cannot selectively pick and choose which laws of New York State and regulations of its governmental offices that we will follow. That is not how a school district operates,” she said.

Waters said that although the regulations might not be something that “the district necessarily agrees with,” it will continue to uphold the regulations within the district until change comes from the executive branch.

Whitehall school superintendent Patrick Dee said the safety of the students and staff will always come as a first priority for the district. When asked about the protocols for the discipline of a student who refuses to wear a mask, he said the student is sent home.

“We are obligated to follow the laws, statutes, and regulations of New York State,” Dee said. ‘Individuals within public schools must be masked until the regulations change.”

Whitehall, Granville and Fort Ann were some of the districts present at the rally before the meeting.

Some of the signs being held said “we will not comply” and “masks reduce immunity, mask use is child abuse.” They demanded the unmasking of children in school, vaccinated or not.

Adam Arquette of Whitehall has a child in kindergarten and he said he wants the board to clarify what the actual mandates are from the state. Arquette said in his opinion, the masks are nonsense and the group wants them gone.

“To put it back into action when people are eating at restaurants, going to Great Escape Lodge without masks, why should our children still have to have masks on,” he said.

“They haven’t really been transparent and I want to know how the school, superintendent, and the board feels,” he said. “I want to know if their hands are tied by the state and how much.”

Cristen Zekus of Granville was at the rally with one of her children, Colbie. Her children haven’t attended school within the district since the beginning of the pandemic, being home schooled instead. Zekus said homeschooling her children has been more effective than when they were attending school in the district.

“We had to figure out a groove but once we did, it was awesome,” she said. “They do everyday stuff with us and they’re learning more than they would at school. They aren’t limited to what’s being taught in the classroom.”

Andrew Ladd, a student from Fort Ann Central School who was protesting for unmasking, spoke of the mask mandate after being in the classroom.

“I tend to get headaches and it’s hard to breathe. It’s just annoying,” he said. “I just feel like I need my own choice and it feels like they’re restricting us and nobody wants to have to do something like that.”

Ladd’s mother, Jessica, said that she believes there should be freedom for all medical choices and conversations with school boards locally have become stagnant and that’s why she was passionate about protesting.

“It’s why we’re trying to band together schools so we have each other’s backs and have a bigger voice,” she said.

Amanda Coombs, a parent of a Fort Ann student and a registered nurse, said she’s against the vaccine due to its rapid development and she believes there are more side effects than we know.

“I left my job over the vaccine mandate,” she said. “The more research I do and the more I find out, the less I want my kids to be vaccinated and masked. We’ve had enough.”

Coombs said when the vaccines were first coming out, she took a “wait and see” approach. After a while she decided not to get vaccinated because of a side effect of blood clotting.

“I have a blood clotting disorder and they have made it so physicians won’t give you a medical exemption…I had to choose between risking my life versus losing my job… I’m a single parent with two kids so it was a really hard choice, but I would do it again in a heartbeat,” she said.

Dee has been working with the region’s district superintendents and recently wrote a letter titled “Pathway to Normalcy” to Gov. Kathy Hochul and state Health Commissioner Mary Bassett. The superintendents are “appealing for an ‘off ramp’ to all of these regulations and guidelines,” Dee said. He also said the protesters should focus their attention on Albany.

“Schools have been ‘stuck in the middle’ since this pandemic began,” Dee said. “It is time that ends. Our families and the many additional individuals from other regional schools and non-public schools that attended our BOE meeting on Monday night need to focus their efforts on Albany; that is where the changes must occur.”

In Granville on Monday, police officer and school resource officer T.J. Zovistoski said the group dispersed from the doorway just before the 6 p.m. start of the meeting and that there were no issues. Zovistoski added that no conversations occurred between him and the board about a potential situation occurring like it did in Whitehall.

“It depends, when they ask me to come, I come,” Zovistoski said.

School superintendent Tom McGurl addressed the mask mandate during his monthly report to the board and mentioned trends among states in the northeast reducing restrictions on mask mandating and quarantining.

“My understanding is New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania are in some stage of moving off of quarantining and mask mandating,” he said. “I haven’t seen the news but there does seem to be some movement around the northeast. It is good news for us, I think. I don’t think necessarily the governor (Kathy Hochul) would want to be an island in the northeast.”

McGurl said he will be waiting for Hochul’s speech on vaccinations and/or masking scheduled for Wednesday. He touched on the confusion and being “caught in the crosshairs” feeling that many school districts have felt in recent weeks with state guidance.

“Whatever the rule is that the state Education Department puts out is the rule that we have an obligation to follow, and that’s what we will do. Hopefully, that is going to happen soon because it is problematic when the rest of the world seems to be moving off of Covid,” McGurl said.

“We had put out that advocacy letter to our politicians and representatives, (and said) if they are going to continue this process that there is an exit strategy that becomes known. Schools are kind of getting caught in the middle of this right now. We have to follow the rules, while we’re following the rules, we’re being blamed for following the rules by people who do not agree with the rules.

“The idea is we have to follow them but I think the state needs to step forward if it’s not an immediate ‘we’re going to be dropping this,’ then ‘here’s a timeline for how we’re going to move off of it.”

A father of eight children in the Granville Central School District, Eric Ferrin, was joined by his daughter, Savannah, an eighth grader, to voice their grievances with the statewide mandate.

“(I’m here) to protest against hypocrisy and the mask mandates that are injuring our kids, basically. The masks do no good, they are actually injuring the kids, they aren’t getting enough oxygen, they’re breathing in their own bacteria,” Eric Ferrin said.

“It’s hypocritical because they have to wear masks all day in school, they have to wear masks playing a sport, basketball. But yet on TV, professional sports, they are not wearing masks, college sports they are not wearing masks.”

Another parent, Tabitha Terry, agreed with Ferrin on the point that conversations with superintendent McGurl went “nowhere” and that the answers were consistently stating that the district follows the guidance of professionals at the state Education Department and Department of Health. Terry finds the mask mandates “unconstitutional.”

“I’ve been in very close contact, ‘their hands are tied’,” Terry said.

“What’s next if we don’t protest against this, forced vaccines?” Ferrin said.

“We’re just happy to be back in school. I’m just happy to have my senior year,” Powers said. “We just want to support our school board also. They’re not the ones in charge, ultimately the state has the final say.”

See also “Parents, students disrupt school board: End the mask mandate, they demand,” Whitehall Times, Feb. 4, 2022