Board under fire as mask rule draws ire

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Raechel Fraterrigo is applauded as she returns to her seat after speaking to the Guilderland School Board, behind her. “Personal freedom is a god-given right,” she said.

 

GUILDERLAND — After 50 minutes of listening to heated comments about masks being required in school, which escalated to pro-mask speakers being heckled, the Guilderland Board of Education adjourned its meeting on Tuesday night — only to resume again after the crowd of about 30 had left.

After the meeting, several board members received threatening emails with continued personalized warnings, seven of the board members wrote in a letter to the Enterprise editor.  

Blanca Gonzalez-Parker was one of them, leading her to call the Guilderland Police who patrolled her home Tuesday night.

“I’m scared for my family,” Gonzalez-Parker told The Enterprise on Wednesday morning after a sleepless night. She has three young children.

Gonzalez-Parker noted that the man who wrote the emails was at the meeting, frequently shouting as people spoke.

“He said he’s going to come after me and that I’m — quote — garbage, scum, communist,” said Gonzalez-Parker. “He’s sending me a message hourly.”

Discussing undertones of racism at Tuesday’s meeting — with comments from the crowd directed at a Black speaker and at the school board president — Gonzalez-Parker said, “I feel there are racial undertones in this as well. Why would he assume I’m a communist other than I’m Latina?” she asked.

During the meeting, the crowd applauded and gave standing ovations to those who spoke against the district’s plan to require masks in the coming school year as it had last year.

Comments from those at the meeting were interspersed with written public comments read out loud by the school board president, Seema Rivera. The written comments are posted on the district’s website as part of the agenda packet and the spoken comments can be heard in a video on the website.

“It got much worse after the video,” Gonzalez-Parker told The Enterprise. After the board voted to adjourn, she said, “The people came up and screamed at us.” She felt spit on her forehead and said she was mocked for wearing a mask. “We could hear people scream outside and more police had to be called.”

A Guilderland Police officer was on hand during the meeting, which Deputy Chief Curtis Cox said was routine. The officers that were called by someone at the meeting were dismissed when it was determined there was no need, Cox told The Enterprise.

Jeff Thomas, who spoke twice at Tuesday’s meeting, is also listed as an administrator on the Facebook page for Unmask New York School Children Now. The page says it was created on May 18, 2021 and currently has 15,641 members, with 292 joining in the last week.

“Please take the time to review videos that were shared on our Facebook page from other school board meetings so that you can be up to speed on the issues,” writes Thomas in a recent post. “This cannot go on any longer! It needs to end now. Your school board has the power to end it.”

His post goes on to list dozens of school board meeting dates, including at Voorheesville on Aug. 9, Guilderland on Aug. 10, and Bethlehem on Aug. 11.

At its last meeting, the Guilderland board had agreed to a three-minute period for each public comment, which caused consternation for some in the crowd.

 

Speaking out

Amanda Conover Stygar was the first to address the Guilderland board on Tuesday night. She said, as a Guilderland student herself, she had learned to stand up for what was right. She prefers her child to be maskless and thinks the same rules should be followed in schools as for restaurants.

“Your reopening plan was disappointing,” she told the board, saying that it followed the easiest action. She suggested “common ground” would be having students masked in hallways but not classrooms.

The plan, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from the American Academy of Pediatrics, requires all students and staff to wear masks. (See related story.)

Sarah Stalteri spoke next, her voice cracking with emotion as she said, “A choice was not given.” She said that, when she learned the state’s health department would not issue guidelines, that it would be up to individual districts instead, she thought parents would have a say.

Referencing an email to the school community from Superintendent Marie Wiles, she asked, “How does the board have the audacity to claim that we are a partnership?”

The fifth commenter and the first to speak in favor of masks was Chris Bombardier, a father with three children in the district. “I think this is a small thing to ask,” he said of wearing masks. 

“Go to communist Russia,” yelled someone in the crowd.

Deena Lestage Restifo, a dental hygienist, called requiring masks of children “abuse” and told the board members, “Not one of you is aware of how to properly wear your mask — not even in this room.”

David Fraterrigo, with children in the Guilderland schools, said the district for 18 months has been using the CDC as a crutch. “Guidance is not science,” he said. His mother, Barbara Fraterrigo, is a long-time school board member but was on vacation and so was not at Tuesday’s meeting.

Later, his wife, Raechel Fraterrigo, told the board, “You are pitting one segment of the community against another.” She advocated for a “blended approach,” and said that most had deferred to the district’s decision-making for 18 months. She concluded to sustained applause, “Personal freedom is a god-given right.”

Karen Lewis, only the second to speak in person in favor of masks, said she is a kindergarten teacher in Schenectady with a son at Guilderland High School. “We’re all vaccinated,” she said.

“Don’t call it a vaccine … Call it an experiment,” shouted someone in the crowd.

Lewis said the Delta variant could be carried by someone who is vaccinated and asymptomatic so, if her son got it at Guilderland High School, he could carry it back to her and thereby to the kindergartners she teaches.

“I’m really horrified,” said Lewis.

She said family and friends had had COVID-19 and her aunt died the other day. She taught her kindergartners while wearing two masks and goggles, Lewis said. “My choice was also to not to infect my students,” she said.

Lewis asked the crowd, with some heckling her, “How are you going to reach middle?”

Rivera hit her gavel on the table four times, twice asking for quiet from the crowd — “or we’ll have to pause,” she said.

As Lewis walked from the lectern to return to her seat in the gallery, Vincenzo Stalteri shouted at her something about Critical Race Theory.

“Is that because I’m Black?” asked Lewis.

“She supports the 1619 Project,” said Stalteri, pointing at Rivera, a woman of color. “We’re stuck with her.”

At this point, Wiles said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we need to honor everyone’s opportunity for public comment and, if we can’t do that, we’re going to adjourn.”

Kim Blasiak, a mother of four children, two with individualized education plans, spoke next. She said she had been home in bed, watching the meeting and decided to come in when there was a comment made about how children with special needs did.

Two of her children, Blasiak said, had had “severe anxiety attacks” over wearing masks at first but, based on behavior modeled at home, they were fine.

“It’s gotten so nasty between all of us,” she said, recognizing that all parents want to do what’s best for their children. “Let’s at least have a common ground where we’re respectful of each other’s opinions.”

Blasiak said that school districts had been left dangling with zero guidance from the state. “What I ask is that we’re all just polite to each other,” she said.

As she left the lectern to return to her seat in the back row, a bearded man seated in front of her, holding a red anti-mask sign said, “My body, my choice, right?”

“Are you a woman?” asked Blasiak.

At that point, as comments from the crowd continued, Wiles twice said, “ladies and gentlemen” and Rivera again asked for quiet — to no avail.

“I think we should adjourn,” Wiles said to Rivera who called for a vote. All eight board members present supported the motion and they then gathered their things to leave the meeting table.

 

“Choosing the lesser of evils”

When the board reconvened, one of the agenda items was Wiles’s description of the school opening plan.

“Our highest priority is to provide in-person instruction all day, every day,” she said, noting a “rapidly changing set of circumstances.”

The Reopening Steering Committee that had mapped out the plan for the 2020-21 school year has been reconvened as the Recovery Steering Committee. Wiles said the original group had subcommittees that included parents and that she would suggest that some of the subcommittees reconvene.

At the very end of the meeting, after Rivera read more written public comments, the board members had a free-ranging discussion, sharing their thoughts on the public comments, on schools’ guidance for reopening, and on their role as board members.

Gonzalez-Parker said it was “highly irresponsible” for the state’s health department not to give guidance. “We are going to be impacted by other communities,” she said.

Rivera said that she, too, was disappointed in the state’s health department neglecting its duty, and noted that the State Education Department was stepping up to fill that role. “Thank God,” said Gonzalez-Parker.

Wiles noted that the advice is: Not having kids in school is a bigger risk than, say, not having them three feet apart on a school bus.

“At this point, I feel we’re choosing, you know, the lesser of evils,” said Rivera. She also said, “I don’t think any of us have a crystal ball to know how masks will impact people in the future.”

“What you heard tonight, a lot of that is just not true,” said school board member Nathan Sabourin. Mentioning several of the points made by people speaking against masks, he said, “It’s all been debunked … The data is out there.”

Sabourin advised, “Do your research. A lot of what you heard tonight, fake news.”

The board did correct two points that were made in public comments: All board meeting dates, including Tuesday’s, are listed on the calendar on the district’s website, and the board members are not paid.

One of the great parts of public schools and public board meetings is sharing thoughts, said Rivera.

“Some people … may take what they heard tonight as facts,” said Gonzalez-Parker, stating that misinformation is perpetuating the virus.

“I think this dissent really underscores the abdication of the DOH,” said board member Rebecca Butterfield, a medical doctor.

Rivera agreed that the department of health bowing out had left “all school boards across the state vulnerable to this.”

It’s reckless,” said Gonzalez-Parker. “It’s going to result in the pandemic not being controlled.”

“This is a political question, what we’re doing to mitigate COVID,” said board member Benjamin Goes, a lawyer. He believes “we will never mitigate COVID.” He noted that the Delta variant of COVID-19 can be spread by people who have been vaccinated.

Gonzalez-Parker responded later that, without enough people vaccinated for herd immunity, every case of COVID-19, even a sniffle, is another chance for the virus to mutate.

“I think guidance would be helpful because, from the lawyer perspective, it gives us someone to point to,” said Goes.

But he went on, “These parents, whether their data is right or wrong, they’re bringing up real trade-offs, which public-health professionals alone are not qualified to make those trade-offs for people.”

Goes thinks it’s good that elected representatives are “participating in these decisions now.”

Goes also said of the people who oppose vaccination — “a solid 25 percent in this country” — it may be “because they don’t get a say.” He said “we might have more buy-in” if it were not decree. A decree, he said, could make “people feel like they don’t have a voice in what’s going on in their own kid’s life.”

“We are the elected officials, ...” said Sabourin, a lawyer who became a board member this summer. “We’re here now because we got elected … We shouldn’t have to make these decisions, but we are.”

People did get to use their voice with their vote, he said. “I appreciate that they’re angry,” said Sabourin, adding he welcomes a challenge.

He also countered the assertion there was no evidence that masks work. “Look at our school year,” he said, noting that many other schools did not offer in-person learning last year as Guilderland had.

While masks are inconvenient, he said, “Masks work …. I don’t think there’s been a single incident … of a student being sick in our district because they wore a mask all day …. History has shown it to work.”

On Wednesday morning, Gonzalez-Parker said she believes many people do not realize that the board’s policy is not to speak during the public-comment periods. She noted that the man who wrote the threatening emails had written to her that the school board tossed out the anti-maskers to have its “little Nazi meeting.”

“We just have to sit there and listen,” said Gonzalez-Parker. “We’re not allowed to comment till the end of the meeting. That’s how we always do it. We don’t like it either.”

 

 

More Guilderland News

  • The parties are scheduled to appear at the Foley Federal Courthouse in Albany on Oct. 7, at 10 a.m., when the state will have to make the case as to why Judge Lawrence Kahn should not grant the temporary restraining order until he can make a determination on the plaintiffs’ motion for the preliminary injunction.

  • The new local law is subject to a permissive referendum, meaning a petition can be submitted to the board requesting the issue be put to the voters in a special election.

  • Guilderland school district residents passed a $21.8 million capital project on Thursday with nearly 64 percent voting in favor.

    “After what our kids have been through, this is awesome,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles on Thursday night just after the results were in.

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