Clarkstown school board scraps meeting as audience rebels against mask edict
WEST NYACK - Clarkstown school board scrapped its Thursday night meeting after visibly angry audience members refused to wear masks inside the Clarkstown South High School auditorium — a mandate the district recently announced.
Many in the crowd subsequently held their own comment session outside.
Speakers, sometimes standing on a picnic table, blasted the mandated mask rule; expressed concerns that the school district was pushing so-called Critical Race Theory education, as well as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, policies; and derided Superintendent Martin Cox, who several said had been disrespectful and unresponsive to them.
The board ended up scheduling a Friday morning board of education meeting in which a couple of pressing issues were voted on. Other agenda items, including the public comment period, were scrapped. New York State Education Law allows for advance notification of meetings “to the extent practicable” in cases when a meeting is called with less than a week's notice.
Attendance at Thursday's meeting had been capped at 175 to meet social-distancing requirements. The crowd neared that number.
Tensions were on display well before Board President Walter Litvak announced that the meeting would not take place.
"It's not your building!" an audience member yelled as John Lanave, assistant superintendent of business, asked him and others in the audience to wear masks. "Who are you!"
"Ridiculous!" a woman called out.
"You work for us!" another called out. "Remember that!"
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When the audience was told that in order for the meeting to start, they would have to wear face coverings "as required" by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York State Department of Education, much of the room erupted in laughter.
Clarkstown and many other Hudson Valley districts have announced that masks would be mandatory indoors for all in school buildings as COVID cases rise amid the delta variant's growing presence. Districts cite CDC and NYSED support for those measures. But the information comes in the form of guidance, not a mandate.
The New York State Department of Health, which had been expected to set COVID safety policy for schools, has declined to offer guidance.
Amid the shouting, Litvak said the meeting would not be held.
But the residents who showed up to share their comments about the district's operations and decisions continued to call out their frustrations.
Joseph Paladine of Congers helped lead people out front to hold their impromptu speakout. "Who came here to speak," he called out as the auditorium emptied. "That's why I took off from work."
Mad about masks, and more
Karalyn Maggino of Congers was among those to step up, alongside her 8-year-old daughter, Madison, a soon-to-be third grader who she said struggled with mask-wearing last year, and a 5-year-old who is entering kindergarten.
Maggino called the district's COVID-era school rules "mental torture and abuse." She said Madison developed anxiety and other medical issues amid a year that included remote and hybrid learning, then a return to a school environment that had kids sitting at desks surrounded by Plexiglass and wearing masks, and undergoing COVID testing. She said that Madison was initially not among the students who were invited to come back full time in January, even though her struggles were known to the district.
"I will not go backwards," Maggino said.
Madison spoke up inside the auditorium and then later outside. "I'm not going to school with a mask on."
Michael Kingsley of New City said that after a year and a half of dealing with COVID, "it's over, these guys just haven't accepted it yet."
As of Thursday, Rockland County's health department had documented 608 active COVID cases.
Several speakers Thursday evening said their research had determined that masks were unsafe for children. Citing the mask mandate and the district's plan to develop a DEI task force, one called out that the district was sacrificing children "on the altar of political correctness."
The New York State Board of Regents has launched an initiative that charges school districts with "developing policies that advance diversity, equity and inclusion — and that they implement such policies with fidelity and urgency."
Cox on Friday said the district will "eventually need to create" a districtwide Diversity Equity and Inclusion task force.
Shelved presentation revisited
Several speakers also targeted Clarkstown's actions surrounding a shelved student-led presentation about the Black Lives Matter movement.
The slide deck was produced by Felix Festa Middle School eighth-graders as part of an extracurricular program called "No Place For Hate" that exists in schools across the nation and is an initiative of the Anti-Defamation League.
Cox had first announced its delay during a May 20 school board meeting after a group of parents claimed the slideshow carried anti-white and anti-police messages. It was tabled at the end of the school year.
The presentation contained slides with statements like "Our belief: Racism hurts everyone" and a clip from a June 8, 2020, Today Show interview with Hoda Kotb called "Voices for Change: Kids speak out about racism and the Black Lives Matter Movement."
Local NAACP leaders, who were among community leaders invited to view the slideshow, called the decision startling.
“In fact, at both meetings we attended, there was almost full unanimity among board members, students, parents, teachers and administrators praising the wonderful work of students and staff — both the effort that went into the slide presentation and the ultimate product that resulted,” stated a June 24 letter to Cox signed by Nyack NAACP President Nicole Hines; Regional Director Westchester Mid-Hudson NAACP Wilbur Aldridge; and local NAACP education committee chair Oscar Cohen.
The Rev. Rich Hasselbach of the Reformed Church of West Nyack offered his church on Strawtown Road "as a place of dialog" for the group.
A contingent of parents in support of masks who attended the meeting did not appear to stay at the gathering outside.
Special meeting Friday
A special meeting was then held Friday morning at district headquarters, with few in attendance. An email notification of the meeting was timestamped 9:56 p.m. Litvak did not attend so the meeting was led by Trustee Tamara Bierker.
In quick order, the board voted to scrap public comment and much of the agenda. The board voted to approve the 2021-2022 tax rate and on a resolution to authorize facade wall replacement at Clarkstown South High School.
"There were things that had to be signed for the district to proceed," Bierker said after Friday's meeting. She declined to comment further on Thursday's or Friday's meetings.
The notice appears to have been emailed around 9:56 p.m., Thursday, about an hour after the gathering outside South had left.
After Friday's morning meeting, Cox said the district would be providing further information, including a Q&A about the opening of school.
When asked why the meeting notices for Thursday's and Friday's meetings did not state that masks were mandatory, Cox said, "I've already communicated that on Aug. 5."
As for the mask mandate, Cox said: "That's a decision that has been made and that's a decision I stand by."
Another special meeting of the school board has been scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 19, at Clarkstown South. The board is expected to start in executive session.