By Aila Boyd
The public comments portion of the Botetourt County School Board meeting last Thursday in Fincastle featured a variety of individuals, all of whom aired their grievances to board members, as well as the division’s administration. Although some speakers discussed critical race theory and transgender policies, the majority voiced concern about school mask requirements.
In total, 13 individuals spoke over the course of the 45-minute comments portion. Each speaker was allowed three minutes for comments.
Danny Goad said, “For over 400 years the policies of our country in dealing with the sick was the policy laid out in the Bible. You quarantine the sick, not the well. The masks quarantine the sick. The masks cover the image of God.”
Keri Martell said, “Botetourt just spent $300,000 on plasma generators for the schools for air purification, not for blasting into space. Why are we spending this money on air purification if we’re still going to muzzle our children? Why I ask, which is rhetorical because if we don’t order them and their parents and visitors to wear masks, then we can’t see how many compliant sheep we have. We won’t know how many people to expect to obey the next more draconian, unconstitutional government order.”
Some of the speakers took issue with the division’s equity task force, insisting that the composition should be altered to include parents from various divisions or schools and that minutes should be recorded and made public.
A vote was held earlier in the meeting to limit the length of the comments portion. Although those in attendance didn’t object at the time of the vote, which was passed unanimously after Blue Ridge District representative Matthew East motioned for the vote and Buchanan District representative Michelle Austin seconded it, an outpouring of objections broke out when Amsterdam District representative and chair Anna Weddle announced the board would move to other matters after the 45 minutes was up.
The situation got so tense in the room that Dr. John Russ, superintendent, had difficulty presenting the facility use report over the cries for an extension to the comments portion.
Austin inquired about how many requests to speak remained, to which Weddle disclosed there were 12.
After multiple attempts to bring order to the room, a vote was held to hold a recess so that the room could be cleared of all those present by Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office deputies, except for employees of the division. The action came after Weddle attempted multiple times to restore order. She made a disclosure at the beginning of the meeting that the room would be cleared and speakers would be called one-by-one to comment if order wasn’t maintained throughout the meeting.
In the moments that followed the announcement that the room would be cleared, some in the room used vulgar language and made insulting remarks. Others complained that the meeting should have been moved to a school with an auditorium, which would have accommodated all those interested in attending the meeting. Many at the meeting were required to stand in the lobby area of the division’s administrative building at 143 Poor Farm Road due to the limited capacity of the meeting room.
Once the decision was made to clear the room, the board exited the room through a back door. Although some members of the public continued to linger in the room, deputies eventually asked those who remained to do as they were told and exit the room. Those who objected and wanted to watch the remainder of the meeting were told they could do so online once the meeting reconvened.
The meeting came just hours after Gov. Ralph Northam announced a Public Health Emergency Order requiring universal masking in all indoor settings in Virginia’s K-12 schools. The order went into effect on August 12. At the time of the announcement, his office said that it reinforces current state law that requires Virginia schools adhere to mitigation measures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC measures from July 28 include the need for universal masking for all students, teachers and staff.
“We know that masking is an effective tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly among children who are not yet eligible for vaccination,” said Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver. “As cases rise in our communities, universal masking and other mitigation measures will ensure our schools continue to be the safest place for Virginia’s children.”
At the beginning of the meeting, Weddle outlined the scope of the order. While she was doing so, some in the crowd waved signs objecting to the order. “Since this is a state-wide requirement issued by the state health commissioner, local school boards have no input,” she said at the beginning. “We appreciate you advocating for your children.”
Before the comments portion, Weddle reminded the public of the board’s actions on masks prior to the meeting. At the July 8 meeting, she said, the board voted to uphold the administration’s recommendation not to adopt the Virginia Department of Education’s stand-alone transgender policy. She went on to say that the division’s policies had not changed and that the board did not take the same position on transgender policies as Loudoun County.
Also at the July 8 meeting, she said, the board released a united statement that the division does not teach Critical Race Theory curriculum, does not plan to teach it and does not believe it is appropriate in K-12 education.
On August 6, the division released a statement that said, “Botetourt County has experienced a high COVID-19 community transmission rate recently. Unfortunately, this trend is the reality of many counties and states across the nation. The pandemic has clearly taught us that we must remain flexible in an ever-changing situation. On August 4 the CDC updated its guidelines for K-12 schools. Botetourt County Public Schools will abide by the updated CDC guidelines. Effective immediately, masks will be universally required by all students, staff, teachers, and visitors to our schools, regardless of vaccination status. This requirement applies to all upcoming open houses, orientations, and other gatherings prior to the start of the school year.”