Louisiana mask mandate remains in schools (for now) after state school board ends meeting early

The state school board cut meeting short when audience members refused to wear masks

By: - August 18, 2021 1:27 pm

Pastor Tony Spell (front) and several other people refused to wear masks at a Wednesday meeting of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. (Photo by JC Canicosa/Illuminator)

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statewide mask mandate will remain in place for K-12 schools  after the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) adjourned its meeting early Wednesday and declined to vote on its own school masking policy. 

BESE voted 8-2 to end the meeting abruptly after most people in it saudience refused to put on masks, which is required indoors in all government buildings.

Board members repeatedly asked audience members to wear masks. Most weren’t willing to do so. Instead, the crowd chanted “No More Masks!” and “Freedom!”

The state school board was supposed to vote Wednesday on whether to uphold the statewide mask mandate or let local school districts decide on their own masking policies — in defiance of the governor. But the board decided not to vote on the matter after seeing the unruly crowd.

When asked if BESE has plans to reschedule discussion and the vote on enforcing the mask mandate in K-12 schools, a spokesperson for BESE said in an email to the Illuminator that “at this time, no determination has been made to take up the item at a future meeting.

Edwards put the mask mandate in place — which applies to almost all public indoor spaces — at the beginning of the month in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Louisiana has had a higher rate of COVID-19 hospitalization in the month of August than it has had at any previous point during the pandemic. Some regions of the state are down to fewer than 10 available beds in their hospital’s intensive care units. 

School-age children also appear to be getting sick with COVID-19 in larger numbers than during previous stages of the pandemic. Pediatric doctors have warned that intensive care beds for children are close to capacity. About a quarter of positive COVID-19 tests reported by the state Wednesday were done on people under the age of 18.

Audience members were told at the beginning of the meeting that masks were required and they could request one from staff members, but if they couldn’t wear one because of a medical condition, they had to watch the meeting in an overflow room on a livestream. No audience members took the board up on that offer.

After a BESE member warned the audience that they’ll start enforcing the mask mandate, one maskless audience member said, “I am sick and tired of these masks! Enough! Enough!” which was met with a standing ovation from the crowd. “I’m not doing it anymore!”

“I will not conform!” screamed another audience member, as the crowd applauded. “Neither will I!” replied another audience member.

Because adjournment happened before scheduled public comments, many audience members who came to speak about the mask mandate weren’t able to.

Tony Spell, the Pentecostal pastor who defied the state’s order limiting crowd sizes last year, attended the meeting. He began telling the audience that “King (Gov. John Bel) Edwards” and BESE “didn’t give us that inalienable right [to not mask], and we can’t give up that inalienable right!”

Spell also invited audience members to come up and speak individually while the BESE board was still adjourned for executive session.

Spell said that he came to the meeting to fight for the children’s freedoms, and BESE “was not fighting for them. They’re fighting for money, government grants and they’re all pawns of King Edwards.”

Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry and Republican leaders in the Louisiana Legislature had encouraged BESE to revert control over masking to local school districts. They want to see the issue of student masking left up to school leaders and not the governor.

Rep. Larry Frieman (R-Abita Springs) said he came to the meeting “to advocate to have BESE allow local districts to decide for themselves.”

“It was a very big mistake for BESE to adjourn that meeting,” he said.

“They should have allowed the public to speak,” Frieman said. “I talked to people who came from north Louisiana, south Louisiana — all areas of the state — and they should’ve been allowed to speak.”


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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is a former Louisiana Illuminator reporter. Prior to working with the Illuminator, Canicosa worked for Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon. Canicosa earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.