‘Chaos’ to start of board meeting as member, others escorted out by police for refusing to wear masks
Published 7:11 pm Friday, February 11, 2022
Suffolk Police escorted several people, including Chuckatuck Borough School Board representative Sherri Story, from its meeting Thursday after not complying with a directive from chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck to wear masks.
The start of the work session was delayed for 30 minutes as Story argued against a motion to remove her for not wearing a mask, and as several people in the council chamber of City Hall where the meeting took place argued with Brooks-Buck and told her they would not wear a mask.
“Our protocol is that we are still under the CDC COVID guidelines that we have been following,” Brooks-Buck said after gaveling in the meeting. “Our mitigation strategies are still in place. All persons who would like to be a part of this meeting must follow those CDC guidelines and our mitigation protocols. All persons who are not wearing a mask must leave this room. If you want some relief from wearing the mask, (and) you’re not speaking at the mic … you must step outside.”
After that statement, a motion from board vice chairwoman Phyllis Byrum and seconded by Karen Jenkins to have Story removed from the City Hall council chamber where the meeting took place for failing to abide by Brooks-Buck’s order to wear a mask passed 4-2, with new board member Heather Howell joining Story in voting no, and Jenkins abstaining.
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“Please don’t have us have someone take you out,” Brooks-Buck said after the vote. “Please put your mask on.”
Story indicated that she would not, and Brooks-Buck at that point said she would wait for a Suffolk Police officer to remove Story from the meeting. Brooks-Buck then recessed the meeting for 10 minutes.
Brooks-Buck said that if Story put on her mask, she would not be removed from the meeting. Story said if she were removed, it would be at the board’s own risk and threatened a lawsuit against it. She called having her removed “a power play,” and that the board was prepared to remove her.
“I would say that none of you have the authority to remove an elected school board member on the basis of a mask,” Story said prior to the vote. “We are not under mask mandates. The City Hall is not under mask mandates. I am not an employee of the School Board and I’m an elected official. None of you have that power to remove me from my seat right now for a mask. You do that at your own peril, but you know what will happen if you do this and you do not have the power, and I’m not sure.”
Story continued to say that Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made it optional for people to wear masks in public. The governor’s Executive Order 2 stated that parents could choose whether or not to have their children wear a mask in school. An Arlington County Circuit Court granted seven school boards a temporary restraining order against the executive order, while the state Supreme Court refused to hear a claim on procedural issues from Chesapeake parents who sued the governor over his executive order, and it did not issue an opinion on the legality of the order. The state Senate voted 21-17 on SB 739 to make masking optional for students in schools. The House of Delegates has yet to vote on the bill. If passed and signed by the governor, it would go into effect July 1, but it’s possible he could recommend an emergency clause that would have the law take effect the minute he signs it. However, both the House and Senate would have to approve such a move.
“I’m an elected official, I’m not an employee,” Story said. “If you want to make the employees and the kids wear a mask, you have a right, but you don’t have a right to do that to me as an adult, as an elected official. I’m not wearing a mask.”
“Then board member Story, you need to leave the meeting,” Brooks-Buck said.
“You haven’t held the vote,” Story said. “I want to hear an oral vote on this.”
At that point, a voice could be heard in the chamber saying “Thank you Ms. Story,” before a man could be heard saying he would not wear a mask, that he was in a public building and did not have to wear a mask, and Brooks-Buck asking him to leave. She also asked Suffolk Police officers to escort anyone out of the meeting who would not wear a mask. Another man who said he would not wear a mask said she could have a Suffolk Police officer remove him.
“This is City Hall, but this, today, is a School Board meeting,” Brooks-Buck said. “We do indeed have the right to run the School Board meeting no matter where we are. You must leave, sir, or put your mask on.”
She said people, including Story, had a choice to wear a mask and stay, or to not wear one and leave. Brooks-Buck said everyone has rights, but that people also have a right to their health and safety.
“Your rights end where ours begin,” Brooks-Buck said.
Another person said he had a medical reason to not wear a mask, and when Brooks-Buck asked for such proof, he said he would not share his medical information.
She apologized for the delay to the start of the work session.
“We have been delayed a half-hour with chaos, unnecessary chaos,” Brooks-Buck said.
Later in the meeting, Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III addressed the pending legislation in the General Assembly. He said he was unsure when the bill would move forward, but that for now, students must still wear a mask on the bus, regardless of how that bill turns out, because that is a federal law that trumps state law. He said the bill does not address staff, and all visitors would still have to wear a mask on school property even should the bill pass. He said everyone must protect one another and said exposure to COVID-19 would only cause more disruptions for students and staff.
“Students will have an option to wear a mask,” Gordon said. “Just because it makes it mask-optional, that also means it’s optional to continue to wear your mask.”
Gordon also said masks can still be required at school board meetings.
“The chair of the School Board has the authority on the conditions of the meeting,” Gordon said, repeating that sentence before adding, “I know we’ve had comments related to political pieces and things of that nature. To us in SPS, and to me sitting in this seat, it’s not about that at all. It’s really about making sure that we don’t have anything else that could potentially disrupt what has already been a disruptive two years for our students and our staff. That’s the entire basis. This is also part of the reason why our mask regulations, mask mandates, are actually part of our regulations for dress code. Now if adjustments are made, we’re going to make adjustments.”
He said for 99% of students, the school division has not had any issues with them wearing masks at school. He said the division is still sending out letters for positive COVID-19 cases and closing classrooms, having closed two in the previous two days. He said the division has received support from the vast majority of its staff, along with the Education Association of Suffolk and the Virginia Education Association.
“One of the things that a lot of people sometimes don’t want to admit is that it’s not really about infringing upon your rights, it’s really thinking about the health issues potentially, of the person beside you,” Gordon said.
Brooks-Buck said fewer than five people have complained to her about wearing masks, and said she’s had numerous parents and staff thank her for continuing the mask policy and keeping people safe in school. The division has ordered 40,000 KN95 masks for SPS staff. She said the board would respect the law if and when it is implemented.