Heated arguments spilled into the parking lot Tuesday night after a school board in a suburban Tennessee county approved a temporary requirement for masks in elementary schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
During a special session that night, the Board of Education in Williamson County, just south of Nashville, approved a mask requirement for elementary school students, staff and visitors inside all buildings and on buses beginning Thursday and ending September 21, according to information from the school district.
But a group who opposed the mask requirement gathered outside, and video obtained by CNN shows crowds heckling masked people as they left the session, with one man telling the driver of a vehicle, “We know who you are. You can leave freely, but we will find you.” A Williamson County Sheriff’s Office sergeant is seen imploring the crowd to be peaceful.
That driver was Michael Miller, the father of two students in the district who advocated for a mask mandate during the public comment portion of the meeting. Watching video of the encounter, he said, “terrified” him.
“In the moment, I knew it was bad,” Miller said. “I called my wife as soon as I got out of there, I called a friend on the way home. I drove the most convoluted way possible home after that. I had no idea how bad it really was until I saw it and someone shared that video with me the next day.”
The meeting Tuesday night comes as debates over masks in US schools have reemerged at the beginning of a new academic year. With the highly contagious Delta variant, Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations among children have been on the rise. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends students from kindergarten through grade 12 wear masks in school, along with teachers and visitors, while the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends masks in schools for everyone over age 2.
And real-life evidence about masks leaves little doubt that they work.
During the Tennessee school board’s special session, parents on both sides of the mask issue voiced strong opinions, including health experts like Dr. Britt Maxwell, an internal medicine specialist.
“At my hospital, we’re seeing otherwise healthy people in their 30s and 40s getting sick, and the case counts are going up exponentially and some are dying,” said Maxwell, who later told CNN he went to the meeting because “my children are at risk.”
“We have to do everything we can to protect the whole community, and that means the people in this room that don’t agree with me and their kids in the classrooms,” Maxwell said at the meeting. “If we don’t do this, we’re going to have school shutdowns and quarantines and needless tragedies, and I don’t want that for my community.”
One parent, who identified himself as Daniel Jordan, a former Marine, told the board, “Actions have consequences. If you vote for this, we will come for you, in a nonviolent way. … In the past, you dealt with sheep; now prepare yourself to deal with lions.”
Jennifer King, a parent and pediatric intensive care physician, said, “As a pediatric ICU physician, we are seeing more younger previously healthy children admitted with respiratory failure and acute respiratory distress syndrome than we have in prior strains, as cases in children are on the rise. This trend will only worsen if we don’t act now.”
‘These are the lives we’re trying to save’
During the meeting, the crowd cheered, clapped and booed, and people holding signs were at one point asked to clear the room.
Miller got to the meeting early, he said, to ensure he had a speaking spot. Before the meeting, things were peaceful and people were civil, he said.
“The meeting inside, the decorum quickly went out of control, just kind of a mob mentality,” he said.
After everyone spoke, there was a brief recess. When the meeting resumed, Miller said one man spoke his mind and then left.
“And then a bunch of people walked out in a very violent uproar – I use the word ‘violent’ in terms of loud,” he said. “It was deafening. None of the videos capture how deafening it was in that room … It was echoey and loud and intimidating.
Miller said he eventually saw a sheriff’s deputy enter the room in what he said was “a full bulletproof vest,” telling CNN, “That was a sign to me that something was going wrong.” The chanting of the crowd outside could be heard inside the meeting, he said.
Miller left early, he said, after it became clear the measure mandating masks in elementary schools was going to pass. “I did not want to be there for the complete bedlam that I would anticipate once that vote actually passed.”
When Miller left, he told the deputy at the door that he wanted an escort to his car, and deputies helped him to his vehicle.
“All I wanted to do was to go home to my family and my kids. I’m a parent,” he said. “I’m just a parent who wanted to have his say why masks were important for children, all children, under the age of 12.”
Speaking to CNN Thursday morning, Maxwell said the experience was “shocking.” Maxwell left the meeting early, after the public speaking portion, he said. The energy in the room was “hot,” he said, and he knew “things were going to get a lot worse.”
Maxwell and his wife, who is also a medical professional, braced themselves before walking outside, he said. “I took my wife’s arm and I said, ‘Just remember, no matter what they say, these are the lives we’re trying to save.’”
There was a crowd chanting when they stepped outside, Maxwell said. Someone approached him, “put their hand in my face and called me a traitor.”
“I don’t see how anyone can say that when I’ve been on the front lines of this pandemic since the beginning, treating patients in rooms, unvaccinated for the vast majority of it, hoping I wouldn’t take it home to my family. And for someone to say that, it’s mind-blowing,” he told CNN.
Maxwell didn’t see video of the encounters outside the meeting until the next morning, and it scared him, he said, adding it’s not acceptable to threaten or harass people.
Asked if he feels safe, Maxwell said he likes to believe the outburst of anger was the result of a few people who lost control of their emotions.
“I like to think that these were also concerned parents that cared about their kids, that want the best for them, that have different facts than I have,” he said. “And I like to think that tempers will cool and I will be safe and my family will. I hope so.”
Mask debates resurface in some states
Debates – albeit less heated than the verbal clashes in Williamson County – have unfolded in recent weeks in Florida, where the governor has threatened to withhold salaries of school superintendents and school board members who institute mask mandates in defiance of his executive order that parents must decide how to protect their children in the pandemic.
Parents and school officials in Texas also have been torn over how to keep kids safe after that state’s governor issued an executive order that prevents schools from requiring masks.
And in Georgia, parents are expected to protest Thursday at the Cobb County School District’s central office to demand that the district implement a mask mandate after fifth-graders at one of its elementary schools in suburban Atlanta were sent home this week for virtual learning due to high numbers of positive Covid-19 cases.
The Williamson County board released a statement on the mask debate there, saying, “Our parents are passionate about their children’s education, and that’s one of the reasons for our district’s success over the years. With that said, there’s no excuse for incivility.
“We serve more than 40,000 students and employ more than 5,000 staff members. Our families and staff represent a wide variety of thoughts and beliefs, and it is important in our district that all families and staff have the opportunity to be represented and respected. We will continue to work toward making sure all voices are heard and that all families, staff and community members feel safe sharing their opinions,” the district added.
The temporary mask mandate will allow teachers who are at least 6 feet from students to remove their masks, the district said. The measure applies specifically to elementary schools, and masks are strongly encouraged for middle and high school students.
In late July, the CDC also recommended that localities encourage all teachers, staff, students, and visitors in schools to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status because of the rapid spread of the Delta variant.