BOE Public Comment Focuses on “Free Speech,” Students Eating Outdoors in the Cold

About 15 people signed up to speak at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting at CMS. Many parents voiced opposition to proposed policy 9325 which would reduce allotted time for speakers from 3 minutes to 2, limit public hearing to an hour and hold remaining comments to the end of the meeting.

The policy falls under Meeting Conduct in the Board’s bylaws.

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been numerous speakers during public comment, and the two minute limit would allow more people to speak.

During Thursday’s public hearing portion of the meeting, there were comments on policy 9325, as well as the practice of teachers bringing students outdoors for lunch in winter.

Also, there were comments that have come up previously, including complaints about use of federal funding, children being required to wear masks in school and social-emotional learning curriculum.

Jackie Homan suggested time limits was shorten because the Board didn’t want to listen to certain opinions.

“You don’t want to hear about medical freedom from parents who have come here month after month to plead with you to change blatantly discriminatory Covid policies, and to beg you to start following the science instead of blindly adhering to the false belief and that a piece of fabric stops an airborne virus. It doesn’t,” said Homan, who has a medical exemption from the mask mandate.

Homan continued, “You seem to have adopted another policy for Covid, one I don’t recall coming to a vote. This is the policy that requires young children to eat outside in 28° weather with 30MPH winds. Who made that policy decision?”

Lastly, she asked, ‘(Are) masks, testing or vaccine strings are tied to the ESSER III (federal) money?”

Jackie Homan
Carl Higbie

Carl Higbie, a North Mianus School parent, said he was unhappy that his child had eaten lunch outdoors earlier in the week.

“I find out that kids, including my daughter, are outside in 30° weather, in 37MPH winds, having lunch. This is completely intolerable….There was a small craft advisory warning on the day she was eating outside, sitting on the ground. It’s January in Connecticut, not Miami.”

“Not voted on here. Just arbitrary policy,” he added. “There is no mechanism for dialogue in these meetings. I’m asking who is at fault and who is going to be punished for it? How about we move your desk outside into the courtyard for the rest of the year? I’m good with that. You don’t seem too thrilled about it. And you shouldn’t be, because it’s dumb. Just as dumb as the kids eating outside.”

Higbie noted that teachers eat indoors and attend professional development without masks.

“My kid’s gotta have this thing strapped to his face like a diaper all day. They go outside for five seconds they get yelled at to put it back on during recess.”

“I swear to God, if my kid’s going to be eating outside for one more day, it’s going to be real bad for you guys,” Higbie added.

Another NMS parent, Susan Diana, said she wanted to provide a counter point. She thanked the NMS principal, vice principal and the entire teaching staff, noting they had kept children safe during the pandemic, dealt with the ceiling collapse at the school and necessity to relocate half the students to another location for the first half of the year.

“We must not let the toxicity that is spewed in these meetings permeate our school,” she continued. “I’m here to represent the majority of Greenwich parents to say thank you.”

James Waters, a North Mianus parent and strong advocate for public schools, said in an email Friday morning, “I think our community is tired of hearing the same small handful of people whining at Board of Education meetings. They speak loudly but carry small sticks, peddling false information gleaned from fringe websites, and sadly have now destroyed their own credibility. The rest of us are rolling up our sleeves and helping affect positive change while they howl at the moon. I feel sorry for them and hope they’ll find a more productive way to make our community better going forward.”

“As an example, several people texted me about how sad it was that Mr. Higbie, a former Navy SEAL, was up there whining about the temperature in January, after having harassed the North Mianus principal during the day, when pretty much every other parent in the class he was referring to was completely fine with the school leadership’s judgment.”

Others who opposed the new public comment policy included Kristen Niemynski, who said the board should add opportunities for parents to speak out.

“Instead of becoming more restrictive, the BOE should add a public speaking meeting or town hall every month where they give parents two to three hours to voice any concerns in a Q&A session,” she suggested.

She went on to say, “We do not want social justice and political issues embedded in the curriculum,” Niemynski said. “You are creating stress, anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation and segregation with your policies, and then you spend funding and steer everything toward social and emotional learning to fix the very problems your policies are causing.”

Elizabeth Hopley said the public comment policy would give too much authority to the board chair.

“There are a lot of very smart people in this room and in this town. If you ignore them it’s only to your detriment. They’re here to inform and help you. And inform you they have, meeting after meeting, warning you of the harm being inflicted on children due to mask mandates, quarantines and coercive actions to promote Covid vaccines.”

She said the district was practicing medicine without a license.

Roger Rosenthal made similar comments.

“I have previously spoken against teaching our children to hate the country and themselves, as either oppressors or victims. I’ve also spoken against the speaking of untruths…I’ve spoken about the importance of freedom of choice, including the ability to make the wrong decisions. I’ve made them myself. I did get vaxxed and boostered, under pressure from my millennial sons. But they did tell me, ‘It’s your choice,’ and I made it.”

Rosenthal said the board needed to be more accountable.

“Last October, someone on the board mentioned there’s no link between federal funding and any actions to be taken. That’s a false statement,” he said. “It’s a bribe to go woke.”

RTC chair, and Greenwich schools parent, Dan Quigley, thanked the board and administration.

“Although we have seen school boards become politicized nationally, each of you deserves our respect for your service during these unique and difficult times,” he said.

“Dr. Jones, I’m grateful for your steadfastness in keeping our kids in school. Most of the other superintendents in surrounding areas did not. This has, in my opinion, been the most important decision made during the pandemic, and its biggest beneficiaries are the children of the public school system.”

The topic of students eating outdoors in winter came up again.

NMS parent Graeme Fattedad asked why children couldn’t eat in their classrooms rather than sit on the floor in the hallway or outdoors? He said in response to his complaint, his daughter was given the option of eating indoors in the cafeteria, but other children didn’t have the same choice.

“On Tuesday, my daughter’s class was sent outside to eat lunch. It was 33° weather, with a 25MPH wind. Real feel 22°F,” Fattedad said. “At what point is the risk of these children contracting Pneumonia supersede Covid? What about the dangers of falling branches or falling ice when children are we going to be worried about kids’ safety.”

“These are children, not dogs, and to be fair, my dog gets to eat inside. These children are being treated like criminals,” he said, describing the situation as ‘a prison mentality.’

Board member Karen Kowalski asked about current practice of bringing children outdoors for lunch when it’s cold out.

Dr. Jones said there was no set policy, but rather ‘common sense’ decisions made daily at the building level. She said when it is above freezing, children have always gone outdoors.

“If children want to go outside, and generally when it is above freezing children do go outside, parents send them in coats and gloves. If for some reason they didn’t have what they needed to be outside, the teacher wouldn’t just take them outside.”

Jones said a variety of outdoor spaces are utilized at lunchtime.

“Do we want to take them out if it’s 30°? No. And the children were not out in 30° weather. It was around 34° or 35° around 1:30 in the afternoon…they were inside a courtyard where you really can’t feel the wind. There aren’t big icicles to fall on their heads.”

“Understand the teacher is there with them,” she continued. “Our teachers don’t want to be outside if it’s really so cold it’s uncomfortable…Kids like to be outside. These teachers – there were several of them who played outside that day and felt it was very comfortable.”

BOE member Karen Kowalski said there was a difference between playing outside at recess with gloves on, versus eating ourdoors.

“Why is the classroom not an option?” she asked.

“It is an option,” Jones said. “Teachers all across the district eat in classrooms. In a building referenced tonight, they don’t use their cafeteria for lunch, they use the gym…There is a rotation. It’s not the same every single day.”

BOE member Joe Kelly said there should be more explicit rules about eating outdoors.

BOE member Karen Hirsh said while there was no policy, if parents knew their children might be eating outdoors, they could send them to school with warmer clothing.

“This might be something that should be communicated to parents,” she said.

“It seems like a particularly poor example of judgement,” said BOE member Cody Kittle. “What should be done from an accountability standpoint?”

“It was not 30° and there was not a 30(mph) windchill,” Dr. Jones said. “We had several teachers who chose to eat in the courtyard on that particular day. We can certainly review that. But to say, ‘a teacher’s poor judgement,’ when we weren’t there. The principal could see the courtyard.”

“I don’t think that we stood in a place to be able to judge when we were not there,” Jones continued. “The principal has received other emails from parents who do not agree with the viewpoint presented tonight.”

Dr. Jones said she would talk to the elementary school principals about eating outdoors and follow up.

The schools budget will be presented to the BET on Jan 25 via Zoom, with public comment invited live and in writing.