The Ouachita Parish School Board weathered a second wave of protests against Gov. John Bel Edwards’ face covering mandate during the board’s regular meeting Tuesday.
Last month, a number of concerned citizens thronged the School Board’s Central Office on North 7th Street in West Monroe and implored the School Board for relief from Edwards’ mask mandate.
At the beginning of August, Edwards issued an executive order making the wearing of face coverings mandatory in schools, for children ages 5 and up. Edwards has since extended the mask mandate to Sept. 29, citing concern about the spread of COVID-19 and its variant.
The School Board invited its legal counsel, Monroe attorney Jon Guice, to explain the school system’s legal limits and why the School Board could not lift the mask mandate without breaking the law and risking the federal funding that paid teachers’ salaries among other costs.
“You, as a board, have no authority to make that change,” said Guice, of the face covering order. “It’s been the source of a lot of contention in our parishes, especially in our school districts.”
According to Guice, Edwards’ face mask mandate supersedes the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE)’s minimum standards pertaining to face coverings. BESE, he noted, conceded this point in one of its own news releases.
“Folks, not only has your governor issued an executive order, BESE themselves have told you, follow the mandate,” Guice said.
Guice noted parents who objected to the face mask mandate could take advantage of virtual school options.
“If the board went against the mandate, they risk losing Act 9 immunity,” said Guice, who noted the school system received most of its revenues from the federal government.
“Cut out the money,” said someone from the audience, in reply.
Guice asked the citizens in the room to wait until the question-and-answer period before they addressed their concerns to him or the School Board.
According to Guice, the state “dangled a carrot” of a shortened quarantine period after exposure — if all students wore masks.
“With the mask comes the reward of less quarantine,” Guice said.
Some of the people who spoke to Guice posed rhetorical questions stating their position that the mask mandate violated the U.S. Constitution.
Many asked Guice to answer questions which he said would be better suited as an inquiry or objection to the governor or the state Legislature. One person suggested an evil spirit motivated the School Board’s decision to enforce Edwards’ mask mandate.
“This board can’t decide the science,” Guice said. “This board simply doesn’t have the authority to do what you’ve asked them to do.”
“Any issues you have with the mask mandate is not with this body,” he later added, pointing to the School Board. “Your issues are with the people in Baton Rouge, not with these people.”
At one point, one citizen and Guice raised their voices in an apparent effort to speak over each other, leading School Board President Jerry Hicks to hammer his gavel on the desk. Hicks pointed a Ouachita Parish sheriff’s deputy to the citizen yelling at Guice. The citizen calmed down after a brief interaction with the deputy.
The School Board did not make any substantial changes to its COVID-19 policies on Tuesday, beyond enacting a paid sick leave policy allowing an additional five days of paid sick leave for school system employees who were infected with the novel coronavirus or quarantining themselves after exposure.
Todd Guice, the school system’s personnel director, said the policy was similar to one in place last year and would extend the extra five days of paid sick leave for employees who observed a quarantine.
“It is almost word-for-word the same as the same policy last year,” Todd Guice said.
Todd Guice asked the School Board to make the policy retroactive to cover any employees who had to take sick leave since Aug. 1.
Superintendent Don Coker announced Tuesday that he recently promoted Todd Guice to assistant superintendent.
“If I’m at conferences or I’m out, he’s the man to do it. He has done a great job. I am happy to add to his title — assistant superintendent,” Coker said.