NORTHFIELD, Ohio — One local school board meeting grew so tense Monday night that officials called in police. It happened at the Nordonia Hills Board of Education building, where parents who had been protesting outside came inside to voice their disapproval and concerns over the board of education’s decision, earlier this month, to mandate masks for students and staff.
The tension between board members and the crowd was palpable.
“I am not going to start the meeting until everyone is properly wearing a mask,” said school board president Chad Lahrmer to the crowd of, mostly, unmasked parents.
To that, he got responses from the crowd members like, “You took a vote and you didn’t honor it,” and “How are children going to learn things like phonics without being able to see the teacher's mouths?”
Lahrmer eventually proceeded with the meeting and the items on the agenda but called the Summit County Sheriff's Department to maintain order over the meeting and enforce the mask policy.
“The sheriff is on his way, we will see what happens when he gets here,” he told the crowd.
As the public comment portion got underway, many passionate parents asked questions to board members regarding the mandate while the Summit County Sheriff’s Deputies looked on.
“August 19 the masks were voted for the entire district, and it was a complete 180,” said one crowd member to the board. ‘That is how we got here.”
Each person received five minutes to speak, but when several continued speaking after their allotted time was up, Lahrmer asked sheriff’s deputies for help.
“Number one, this is an official school board meeting from my understanding, number two their policy is you’re required to wear a mask, if you’re in the building,” said the deputy to the crowd. “I cannot enforce a mask rule, nor will I enforce a mask rule, however, once they ask you to leave and you don’t leave, you bring the sheriff's office into it.”
He asked the crowd to mask up or leave.
“Don’t put me in this position, simply follow the policy. If you don’t like it, use your personal rights and elect a new school board,” he said.
The deputies escorted several parents off of school property.
Superintendent Joe Clark said the district is deeply divided.
“I think it is sad. I think there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen in this district,” he said.
Clark said the board’s decision was based on guidance from leaders at Summit County Public Health, Summa Health, University Hospitals, the CDC and the Ohio Deptartment of Health.
“Taking into consideration the hundreds of thousands of doctors that are represented by those organizations, the district thought this was the best health and wellness policy for our kids, to put that mask policy in place,” said Clark.
He said, despite the opposition, he believes the board made the right decision.
Some parents disagreed.
“I think it should be optional. I think it should be their choice,” said parent Sabrina Pines.
Dana Dipenti echoed her sentiment.
“My daughter has a rash around her face, around her nose and mouth that is just persistent,” said Dipenti. “I would be even fine with the masks if they could wear them into the building and then once seated remove them.”
Lori Das works for the district in the cafeteria and said some of the buildings don’t have air conditioning and that a mask can be considered harmful for students.
“I am in the 5th and 6th-grade building, and it is so sad seeing those kids in the heat and just not necessary,” said Das.
The parents said they were disappointed that the district reversed its initial policy, which was that masks would be optional.
Before the board voted for the mask mandate at an Aug. 19 special meeting, it sent a survey out to parents asking what type of mask policy they would like to see. The results of the survey showed a slight majority in preference for optional masking vs mandated.
“The school board just decided that we were wearing them anyways, well, then why did they have us vote?” asked Das.
Superintendent Clark said the survey was not a vote.
“We put a survey out in which almost 1,200 people gave their responses. All of our board members, all five of them, read every single response and it was not a vote. We were not going to go with a popular vote, we were going to go with the best interest of our kids,” said Clark.