Mask debate sparks police presence at Board of Ed. meeting

‘Disruptive’ crowd draws law enforcement at June 15 session.

Protesters stood in the lobby of William Allen Middle School on Tuesday, June 15. Left to right: Melanie Kopala, Christina Miller and Gina Taglianetti advocate to unmask students this September.

Moorestown’s recent board of education meeting seemed over before it began for about 30 minutes, until police were called to the June 15 session in response to unruly protests against mask wearing. 

According to school Superintendent Scott McCartney, when the board opened the public portion of the meeting, it asked that anyone in attendance wear a mask for the duration of the session. When several people refused and became disruptive, he added, the board contacted police.

President Caryn Shaw called for an adjournment of the meeting, and she, along with four other board members, left the William Allen Middle School auditorium. Board members Mark Villanueva and David Weinstein, who were not wearing masks, remained seated while the meeting was adjourned.

Police Chief Lee Lieber said officers were dispatched to the school and eventually  facilitated a compromise that allowed anyone without a mask to stand in the lobby and listen to the meeting. Two officers remained for the rest of the session. 

“We just wanted to err on the side of caution,” Lieber said.

Weinstein had already left by the time police arrived; he said he did so because it was unclear whether the meeting would resume at all. 

“It all was handled poorly on all sides in my mind,” he noted. “The board could have done better. The public could have done better.”

Weinstein explained that he chose not to wear a mask at the June 15 meeting because he’s been to other public sessions where they weren’t required, and the board gathering was a public session that took place in a school. 

He added that current guidelines allow anyone who is vaccinated to forgo masks while  inside public places. Weinstein also thinks Gov. Phil Murphy should reconsider his executive order requiring masks in schools. The board member said he’d even be in favor of splitting the school population by requiring unvaccinated students to wear a mask while older students choose whether to wear one or not. 

Villanueva left the meeting when police asked those unwilling to wear a mask to leave the auditorium. 

“It was ironic, because minutes before we had entered the public meeting, every board member was unmasked for two hours in a room inside the school,” he explained, “so I saw no meaningful difference between meeting in one room versus meeting in another in terms of having to wear a mask.”

Gina Taglianetti was among parents who refused masks and stood in the lobby.

She said she and a group of other parents were there to protest a requirement that students mask up come fall.

Melanie Kopala came to the meeting with a sign in hand. The Mt. Laurel parent runs a Facebook page called Be Their Voice – Protect NJ School Children, a parent advocacy group calling for children to be unmasked come fall. The group is rallying local parents to protest at local board of education meetings.

“We’re not stopping until the kids are unmasked,” she insisted.

Kopala, a mother of five, said in her opinion, masks are doing more harm than good. She’s seen her own children struggle with anxiety that she attributes to mask wearing at school. She cited children who are yelled at if they pull their masks down or if they’re closer than 6 feet apart, creating an environment, she added, that “is more like prison.”

Parent Michael Jubanyik, who wore a mask but lowered it to speak during public comment at the meeting, said as a parent, he weighs the risks of what’s best for his child, and he and other parents are simply asking the board to let parents decide. 

“Let me make the choice for my child; I do it every day,” he said.

Karen Vidal, a parent and pediatric oncology nurse, was disheartened to hear people asking for a decision on masks now, when current research is still unclear on whether children under 12 will be vaccinated by September. She has no problem with the decision being left to parents as it applies to children 12 and older who can be vaccinated, she emphasized. Her concern is for students 12 and under with compromised immunity. 

“They deserve a right to a public education. They have no remote option next year,” she said.
‎Melissa Arcaro Burns said as it stands now, children in kindergarten through sixth grade don’t have the option to be vaccinated. She believes that children like her 10-year-old son, who has a preexisting condition, still need the community to mask up for safety reasons. 

“Masks are inconvenient and they’re annoying,” she acknowledged. “They’re not traumatizing and they’re not dangerous.”

The district currently operates within the governor’s mandates, according to Shaw. She encouraged anyone in attendance to write or phone his office with their concerns. 

“If the mandates change, we will change,” she added.