BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s top school board cut short a meeting Wednesday to debate whether Gov. Bel Edwards’ mask mandate for schools should be challenged, after a raucous crowd of angry parents packed the hearing room and refused to put on face coverings.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education warned the hundreds of people that they must wear masks to comply with Edwards’ order, which covers state buildings.
“We desire to hear from you and to have this discussion,” board President Sandy Holloway told the group as she urged people to follow the mask requirement for the meeting.
But she was greeted with outcry from the audience, with one person screaming: “Don’t infringe on our rights!”
Rather than try to enforce the face covering requirement amid the resistance, the board abruptly voted 8-2 to adjourn the hearing. The crowd erupted into shouting about recall efforts for board members, who were escorted out by law enforcement officers.
Edwards’ executive order has divided parents and provoked loud protests in some school districts. At issue is whether students from kindergarten through high school should have to cover their faces while in classrooms to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
The Democratic governor enacted the statewide mask mandate earlier this month for all indoor public spaces — including school campuses — no matter whether or not someone is vaccinated, as Louisiana saw COVID-19 infections surge.
The state had the nation’s highest rate of new coronavirus infections over the last week per capita, and its hospitals are breaking records daily for the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19.
The mask mandate won support from Louisiana health care leaders who said they’re seeing alarming increases in the number and severity of COVID-19 cases among children. But Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, GOP state lawmakers and others object to the requirement and suggest the education board should decide what happens in schools.
Parents who want to send their children to school without masks have shown up at local school board meetings, in protests and at the state Capitol — and they’ve promoted attendance at Wednesday’s board meeting to outline their complaints.
Before Edwards’ mask mandate, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education declined to enact statewide COVID-19 requirements, with board President Sandy Holloway saying in July that those decisions were best left to local school systems.
The board on Wednesday was supposed to discuss whether it agrees with an opinion from Landry that suggests Edwards’ face covering requirement can’t apply to schools. The attorney general, who frequently spars with the governor, said only the education board and state lawmakers have the authority to issue such a mandate for schools.
Edwards, a lawyer, called the Landry opinion “completely wrong.” And without education board action, the governor’s mandate remains unchallenged for now.
Sixty-three of the 68 Republican lawmakers in the state House have urged the education board to adopt its own rules for COVID-19 safety protocols and give local school districts more control.
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley hasn’t backed the mask mandate, saying he leans “to local control” on such issues. But Brumley hasn’t said whether he supports a legal challenge.
Landry also is trying to undermine the mask mandate at schools in other ways. The attorney general has publicly posted sample letters for parents to seek a philosophical or religious exemption from the requirement.
Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.