By Gregory J. Lamoureux
County Courier

SWANTON: The Missisquoi Valley School District Board had planned to hold their regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday evening, but the meeting never officially began. 

The Chair of the Board, Chris Shepard, told a couple of dozen parents and community members gathered within the Missisquoi Valley High School Library that the Board had a policy for face coverings for everyone within the school buildings, “We do have some [masks] here if you don’t have them, we can provide them. Unfortunately, if you don’t wear a mask, we don’t have a meeting,” Shepard said.

One parent began questioning Shepard about the mandate, “Under whose authority are the masks [mandated]?”

“The School Board voted, that on school premises, masks are mandated to wear on school property” Shepard replied.

The unidentified visitor at the meeting questioned back, “So it’s a law?”

“It’s not a law, but it’s a mandate from the School Board, yeah,” Shepard said.

The visitor, again questioning the authenticity of the mandate replied, “in a public building?”

“In a school building within [Missisquoi Valley School District], masks are required,” Shepard read from the policy.

“So if we don’t cower to your demands, you’re going tuck tail and run?” the unmasked man continued, “That’s what they do best,” a second man in the audience added.

“It’s your call. Like I said, it’s your call. We can have the meeting, all you have to do is wear a mask,” Shepard said.

A parent then began questioning Shepard if the Board had anything to look at to define what a mask is.

“I’m not going to debate masks with you,” Shepard said as he attempted to shut down the argument, “Like I said, your choice is to wear a mask and we’ll have the meeting, otherwise the meeting is canceled for tonight, and it’ll be postponed to another night.”

A member of the audience stood up to confront those who were refusing to wear a mask, asking them to put a mask on so the meeting could proceed.

“The battle, you’re gonna lose guys, put the mask on so you can be heard,” the man in the audience pleaded with the unmasked crowd.

“They’ve got their mind made up anyway, either way, you look at it,” responded a member of the audience.

“That’s beside the point. Say what you need to say, and let the facts speak for themselves,” the masked audience member said, trying to convince his fellow citizens to wear a mask so the meeting could proceed. “Just put a mask on.”

Another citizen asked when the policy was put in place. Although the question went unanswered by anyone on the Board, public records indicate that the Board discussed the school district’s response to the pandemic, ultimately voting to adopt the measures being proposed by Superintendent Julie Regimbal by a vote of 8-0.

Those protocols included mandating that students and staff are not allowed in the building when they are not feeling well, a plan and protocol for contact tracing similar to last year, and a mandate that “Masking will be required of everyone when inside school buildings and on a school bus. Masks are not required when outside,” according to minutes from that meeting.

Shepard continued to threaten the obstinate members of the crowd that the meeting would be canceled, “Once again, mask, or no meeting.”

Another parent continued to question Shepard, “You want us to wear undefined medical clothing, or we can’t be in a public facility that we pay thousands of dollars a year for, for our kids, for educational purposes, even when you can’t define what that is?”

“I said my point,” Shepard replied.

A female parent in the crowd questioned why the janitor in the building was not being forced to wear a mask. Those concerns were not addressed by the Board either.

“Because, rules don’t apply to everybody, right?” one of the parents said.

“Do we just not answer uncomfortable questions?” the female parent asked the Board.

Ignoring the woman, Shepard said he would call the meeting to order as soon as everybody was wearing a mask.

Giving the public about another 45 seconds to comply, without success, Shepard declared the meeting canceled, noting that they will schedule a new meeting at a further date.

The bickering took less than four minutes before Shepard decided to pull the plug on Tuesday’s attempt at holding a public meeting in the school library. 

It should be noted that the public if they wanted to participate in the meeting without wearing a mask, did have the option to participate from their own remote location via a Zoom video conference link.

The fact is, members of the public have a right to attend public meetings, a right that is granted under what is known as the Open Meeting Law (V.S.A. 1 § 312).

That law allows board chairs to institute “reasonable rules,” but it qualifies that those “reasonable rules” are for public comment, not the overall access to an actual meeting.

The County Courier posed the dilemma to Governor Phil Scott at his weekly news conference on Wednesday, asking if this is another indicator that, as a state, we may be headed toward another state of emergency or executive order to conduct crucial public board business.

“I don’t think that we’d have to go into a state of emergency to accomplish the goals of having these meetings,” Scott said, “We just have to get creative and we’re probably going to have to come to some legal conclusion on this as well.”

Scott went on to say that he had yet to speak with his general counsel about the issue, but that he would be doing so, and anticipated publishing some general guidance moving forward.

The County Courier also reached out to Vermont’s Secretary of State, Jim Condos, whose office oversees public meeting access and voting laws. 

Condos said that his office had not heard from anyone yet about this specific meeting, though “plenty of folks have posed similar questions to us, hypothetically.”

“As we understand it, it is currently an open legal question whether a town has the authority to impose a town-wide mask mandate — it seems that VLCT and the Governor differ in opinion on this, interestingly,” Condos said in a written statement to the County Courier, “Towns, of course, can require people to mask on town property; and, it is generally considered best practice (and sometimes legally obligatory under, say, disability laws) to find alternate ways of delivering services to those who refuse to mask up.”

Condos went on to explain that when it comes to public meetings, the Open Meeting law doesn’t identify any exceptions to the requirement that a staffed physical location be provided for members of the public to attend and participate, though it clearly allows boards to offer and encourage additional remote options. There are a number of public safety precautions a board could have in place to address this scenario, including having only one staff member at the physical location, ensuring proper ventilation, providing for physical distancing, and so forth. 

“We suppose a board could go so far as to set up an outdoor physical location, although we imagine that could create technical difficulties in the context of a hybrid meeting,” Condos said. In the end, though, if a member of the public ultimately refuses to mask in the context of a public meeting, we do think turning that person away would be a legally risky move, in terms of inviting litigation. How much risk, we can’t really say, as assessing whether someone was ‘wrongfully excluded’ under the Open Meeting law would likely depend on the facts of the particular situation and as COVID-related litigation involving access to public spaces continues to evolve.”

Condos noted that his office typically refers municipalities to their own legal counsel.

“Members of the public have the right to enforce the Open Meeting Law by filing a written complaint with the Board directly, and, if necessary, following up in court. We have also been sending folks on both sides of these types of questions to the Vermont Human Rights Council, which has jurisdiction to investigate and enforce public accommodations law,” Condos said.

Ultimately, mandating masks within all Missisquoi Valley School District buildings comes from a recommendation from the Vermont Agency of Education, which had asked schools to impose a mask mandate from the time schools opened for the school year, until which point at least 80% of students within a school building were vaccinated.

That guidance officially changed on Wednesday, when Governor Phil Scott announced that the new state guidance for mask mandates would not have a vaccine threshold- meaning there would be no ending in sight for a mask mandate to students, teachers, or administrators. It appears that the way the motion was worded in August, the Board voted to follow the state guidelines, whatever those guidelines are- instead of following the guidelines that were being proposed at that point in time- which was to institute a mask mandate until the 80% threshold was met.

At the August 10th meeting, the Missisquoi Board debated the topic of masks within schools, hitting on topics from mental health to vaccination rates.

Only one parent attended that meeting to give input on the proposal by state officials to have local boards impose a mask mandate within their schools. That parent, who only identified herself as Megan, and a parent of a student at MVU, said she was concerned about a mask mandate for the mental health of children at the school, including her own son.

Peter Magnant, a member of the board reminded those in attendance that even though they were sitting in the cafeteria at MVU, they are there to represent the entire district, including the elementary schools in Swanton, Highgate, and Franklin. He noted that those schools have children that are unable to be vaccinated due to their ages.

Editor’s Note: The County Courier received assistance from our media partners at Northwest Access Television, who covered the meeting on Tuesday night at MVU. As local media is stretched thin, we appreciate their partnership in documenting crucial government meetings.