Anti-Maskers Disrupt BOE Meeting; Board Votes to Approve Staff Vaccination Policy

At Thursday’s BOE meeting, where face masks were required by state law, a group of parents who oppose mask mandates raised voices and disrupted the meeting.

Their presence was not entirely a surprise, given a truck had toured the town earlier in the day with messages including “unmask our kids,” and reminding people the BOE meeting was at 7pm.

A truck bearing illuminated messages made several stops before the BOE meeting on Thursday. Contributed photo

Eighteen people signed up to speak during public comment. About a dozen of them criticized student mask mandates.

Marija Mikolajcjak said she and her 7-year-old daughter had not been allowed to enter Central Middle School to testify in person because they weren’t wearing masks at the meeting.

Testifying later via Zoom, Ms Mikolajcjak said, “Now you’ve made a 7-year old cry.”

“You are not supposed to be the arm of the Democrat (sic) party,” she said.

Mikolajcjak’s daughter testified via Zoom, saying, “I’m doing home schooling because my mom and dad didn’t want me to wear the useless mask all day. That was great because I didn’t want to wear the mask either because at school my favorite things are hugging my friends and sitting next to them, laughing and making friendship bracelets.”

A truck bearing illuminated messages made several stops before the BOE meeting on Thursday. Contributed photo

At the podium, Gail Lauritsen was repeatedly told to pull her mask over her nose before she elaborated on her opinion that masks don’t work.

“Masks interfere with task performance, efficiency and can cause life threatening conditions,” she said.

Jackie Homan, who has a medical exemption from wearing a mask and is the public face of Greenwich Patriots, was first to speak.

Ms Homan, who opposes both mask mandates and vaccinations, accused the board and its chair of using bullying tactics, trying to push a “one-sided pro-vaccination point of view.”

She said the board must either fire staff who she said have broken the mandate or end the mask mandate.

She said the district should shut down vaccine clinics on school grounds and review curricular materials.

Laura Kostin, who is a Democratic candidate for BOE, took the Greenwich Patriots to task for their recent unauthorized parent survey. She said it was wrong for them to abuse their access to personal information to “further a political or ideological agenda.”

As for criticism of the curriculum, Kostin said a video shown to 2nd grade remote learners during the pandemic in 2020 was shown by mistake, and was not part of the curriculum.

“Rest assured, Patriots, you have been heard,” Kostin said. “The cold shoulder you have received over and over isn’t your imagination. But like a jilted lover who will not take no for an answer, you think by repeating the same song on a mix tape, that the scene you keep repeating is less creepy.”

“The speakers list here tonight may be dominated by Patriots, but it is a small list and the rest of our 9,000 students and staff thank you for your efforts,” Kostin said.

Carl Higbie, former Navy Seal who has a veteran mask exemption, also testified without a mask. He said he first became engaged with the Board of Education and administration when his daughter’s second grade class was shown the inappropriate video last year.

“Let me tell you something, you guys work for us,” Higbie said, accusing teachers of not wearing masks and referring to a double standard. “If there’s no repercussions on those teachers, my kids aren’t going to wear a mask to school… I want these teachers to have consequences. If you don’t, we’ll be back here every day.”

Higbie pointed to board member Karen Hirsh, who serves as the secretary for the board, and told her she should sit apart from the board because it looked “pretty disrespectful” that she was typing during the meeting.

BOE chair Peter Bernstein asked repeatedly for attendees to stop shouting and interrupting. At one point, Mr. Higbie shouted, “Fire her,” referring to Dr. Toni Jones, the district superintendent.

During public comment Mariana Begonja, a parent of three children in the district, described herself as a state employee who previously worked in the Greenwich’s special education department.

Ms Begonja blasted the board, saying the district “suffocates the children with mask mandates.”

“It’s about your politics, not about health and safety. You collect state and federal funding on the condition that you make every effort to intimidate us of out of our rights and medical freedoms. You’re also getting paid to indoctrinate our children.”

Ms Begonja began to cry when she talked about the district’s policy on unvaccinated workers.

“The intimidation tactics, the withholding of pay for noncompliance, the weekly testing, even with a medical exception that can cost up to $200 per test, not covered by insurance and no reimbursements,” Begonja said. “You’re not firing us, you’re just not paying us until we comply.”

“The state of emergency is over,” she continued, adding that Greenwich had a high vaccination rate.

She accused the district of not requiring parental consent for children to be vaccinated on school grounds and “working to create a segregated school community.”

North Mianus School parent James Waters described the vocal parents as “usual suspects.”

“The same small group that marks this meeting on its calendar, drives a cheap sign truck around town, and tries to push a selfish, fringe agenda that relies upon misinformation from cherry-picked information and fake science,” Waters said.

Waters said no one liked wearing a mask, but he was glad his children returned to in person learning in Sept 2020.

“They’d rather deal with a minor inconvenience for a little bit longer and get a little stick in their arm in a month or two,” he said.

Waters asked the board not to be distracted by the “noise” of the small group of parents. “Focus instead on academic excellence and ways to bolster personalized learning,” he said. “Focus on getting our crumbling school buildings rebuilt, like the one you’re sitting in.”

As Dr. Jones attempted to deliver her monthly report, there was repeated shouting.

“If you don’t stop we will clear the room,” BOE chair Peter Bernstein warned.

Dr. Jones gave an update on North Mianus School construction.

Students are attending school at a former private school facility in Stamford while the building is repaired. In February a ceiling collapsed.

“It’s on time. We were able to get all the materials. We are very optimistic about that project,” Jones said of the stadium project. She said the district was considering a “soft opening” in order to possibly use the field on Oct 2. “But we need a lot of work and sign offs that need to happen,” she said.

Board member Peter Sherr, said he was surprised to hear employees were being charged for testing.

Dr. Jones said initially teachers did have to pay. “But on Monday there was an emergency meeting and new guidance was issued. And we’ve been letting our staff know that if they go to a state approved testing site, there is no cost to the employee.”

Mr. Sherr asked about parental consent for vaccinations on school grounds.

Jones said for minors under 18 there, absolutely was a requirement for parental consent for vaccination or testing and that ages were validated.

She said parents could opt their children in for a new CT Dept of Health “pool testing” program, which tests about 20 students at a time. If one pool tests positive, they go back and look at the separate samples.

“We have no idea how many families will take advantage,” Jones added.

As Mr. Sherr and Karen Kowalski pressed the superintendent with a series of questions about whether the district was following all CDC and Dept of Public Health guidance.

There was more shouting from the small group of parents, and more warnings from Mr. Bernstein.

“Are we doing small group activities with groups with less than 3 ft (social distancing)?” Mr. Sherr asked.

“If you’ve ever been in a classroom with children it’s almost impossible to keep them at 3 feet (apart) at every minute of the day. We’re trying to be as responsible as possible,” Jones said.

Dr. Jones said that during professional development, where there is social distancing, and when teachers are in their offices, they can take their masks off for a mask break.

“Like students have a mask break when they have a snack,” she said.

“That exception is not included in the policy,” said Karen Kowalski, of teachers taking mask breaks.

“Yes they are allowed to have mask breaks, just like children,” Jones said. “That’s how we are implementing our policy.”

At this point Mr. Higbie shouted, “Fire her.”

“I’ll go back and look at that,” Jones offered.

“We can certainly have the policy governance committee take this up with the Superintendent,” Bernstein said.

“The superintendent does not have the discretion when she implements our policies to modify our policies based on what she sees fit,” Sherr said.

“Mr. Sherr, if you read the mask policy there are mask breaks already there, and what applies to students should also apply to staff,” Bernstein said, adding that a referral to the policy governance committee would be “the place to start.”

Again, vocal parents shouted at the board.

“Please stop interrupting,” Bernstein asked.

After more shouting, Bernstein said, “Please leave. I’m asking you to go. I’m going to have you escorted out. If you don’t leave, we’ll clear the room. It’s not participatory, mam, it’s time to go.”

Greenwich Schools Staff Vaccination Policy Includes Sanctions for Noncompliance

The district is required by the state to implement a Staff Vaccination Policy by Sept 27, which is three days before the Governor’s emergency powers expire. The legislature is going to meet this coming week to discuss an extension of those powers.

The policy had been presented at a previous meeting. Revisions were made by the Policy Governance Committee and the town attorney signed off on the policy as revised.

Jones said there had been an emergency meeting with the State on Monday, with some new implementation guidance which the district communicated to staff.

Jones said teachers would be asked for their insurance when they get weekly tests, but would not be billed for the test if they use a state testing site.

Teachers can seek a medical or religious exemption from vaccination, but still must test on a regular basis. The district collects vaccination card information, plus an attestation to determine whether the vaccination is valid.

Teachers who don’t want to be vaccinated will instead get weekly testing,

Jones said implementing the testing will be complex. The Town of Greenwich was not implementing the same level of testing as the school district.

The School district has a separate Human Resources department from other Town employees.

“A lot of our bargaining units fall on that side,” Jones said. “The town is not implementing the same level of testing. However if they are in the town bargaining unit and they are in our schools, they still must get tested, because they are in the schools.”

Joe Kelly said he had reached out to the GEA president about the vaccination mandate. “She’s okay with it, so I guess I’ll be okay with it too,” Mr. Kelly said.

Peter Sherr said he had heard no objections from the unions.

“They’re represented by powerful, well funded national unions with big lobbying organizations. If they’re not complaining about it, then I assume that means that all the rank and file of the unions are okay with this.”

Karen Kowalski asked Dr. Jones if she was aware of any teachers who were upset and might quit their jobs.

“Then we have an issue of filling classrooms with teachers….I’ve been told we have teacher shortages.”

Jones said the mandate did not apply exclusively to teachers, and that it included bus drivers and custodial staff.

“But right now we’re not seeing that,” Jones added. “The challenge will be that it has to be PCR testing. It can’t be from a home test or over the counter.”

She said staff who are non compliant cannot be in Greenwich Schools and there is a progressive aspect to consequences that begins with a warning and moves to termination.

“Step 1 is a day without pay. By day 5, staff are considered non compliant and the district will move toward termination,” Jones said. “Of course we’re going to be reasonable with a teacher who doesn’t get their test result back for some reason.”

The policy passed unanimously 7-0. Ms Kowalski said she voted yes, “reluctantly.”

Nov 2 Board of Education Elections

On Friday morning Mr. Bernstein said in an interview that disruptive behavior came from a small group of parents who don’t like the mask mandates from the State or are not happy vaccinations are offered to students. He said disruptions made it difficult to conduct business.

“Even here in Greenwich, it happens. This isn’t Texas. This isn’t Florida. This isn’t Mississippi,” Bernstein said. “But there are people who have their beliefs. They’re entitled to those beliefs. But you’re not entitled to shout, scream and disrupt.”

“The mask mandate comes from the Governor’s executive orders. It is administered through the Dept of Health and Dept of Education at the state level,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein said he understood that the students didn’t like the plexiglass dividers in the GHS student center, referring to the GHS senior class president, Javier Serra who complained at the BOE meeting, “It has been nearly impossible to socialize with multiple friends during lunch.”

“We’ve got to keep each other safe,” Bernstein said. “We still need to wear masks in town buildings and schools. Let’s all do our part and keep each other safe.”

Mr. Bernstein said residents should pay attention to the Nov 2 election.

“I do want to alert people they should pay attention. The League of Women Voters and PTA Council are hosting a debate with the BOE candidates on Oct 19 at 7:00pm. Pay attention to who is on the school board. It is very important.”

While the Democrats have two candidates on the slate for two openings, the Republicans have three candidates for two slots.

For schedule of debates click LWV link here and scroll down to the list of debates in red

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