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School board meetings get heated throughout Northeast Ohio over mask mandates

Published: Sep. 20, 2021 at 10:20 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 20, 2021 at 10:22 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Each and every school district in Greater Cleveland and beyond has been faced with difficult decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic. But in recent weeks and months, there appears to be a troubling trend of disagreements boiling over into personal attacks.

“I definitely think that you could call them contentious,” said Chet Ramey, president of the West Geauga Board of Education.

The board recently voted to adopt a mask mandate within the district.

“I just don’t think we expected decisions to be attacked as if we were not operating in good faith,” he said. “I don’t think any of us expected to be called communist and Nazi.”

He was referring to an August meeting where anti-mask members of the crowd made their voices heard.

19 News has reviewed the archived video of the meeting, which is posted on the district’s website.

At one point, someone off-camera can be heard calling Ramey a communist, before threatening to stage a protest at his home.

“You were voted in, and you can be voted out,” a parent said during the public comment portion of the September 13th meeting.

Ramey acknowledges that there are often tough choices to make as an elected leader, but he can’t recall anything getting quite this tense.

“You’re never going to please the entire community, but it seems like, for the mask issue at least, the criticism has become more personalized,” Ramey said. “People who disagree with our decisions kind of attribute them to malice instead of an honest disagreement.”

19 News has also spoken with parents in other communities who have strong feelings about the issue but have not resorted to personal attacks.

“It’s that they’re not giving us the choice,” said Katie Gauntner of Bay Village. “I feel like I’m ready to send my kid to school without a mask.”

She said she and other parents have written to the Board of Education to oppose its mask policy.

In Willoughby, Jan Milazzotto told 19 News she’s afraid her grandchildren won’t be safe without masks in schools but worries that the debate has been overtaken by those who oppose such policies.

“Some of the people that don’t want to wear masks have a very loud voice, and I’m afraid that is going to intimidate the kids,” she said.

In Ohio, school board members can be paid a maximum of $125 per meeting, but many members are paid much less or not at all.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a spirited debate at the Rocky River Board of Education, but the president told 19 News she has never felt personally attacked.

“I have never felt insulted or attacked by angry community members at any of our board meetings,” Diana Leitch wrote in an email. “Some folks are passionate about their views, but I am [also] passionate about some things, so this does not bother me.”

For updated information related to COVID-19 and local schools, visit the 19 News ‘Covid and the Classroom’ page.

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