Split West G Crowd Attracts Media Attention
September 14, 2021 by Diane Ryder

It was a scene straight out of the 1960s in some ways — angry crowds carrying signs and waving flags as video cameras rolled, reporters milling around with microphones while police watched from the fringes.

It was a scene straight out of the 1960s in some ways — angry crowds carrying signs and waving flags as video cameras rolled, reporters milling around with microphones while police watched from the fringes.

An hour before the Sept. 13 West Geauga Schools Board of Education meeting began, about 50 people gathered in the parking lot, some with cars wielding multiple American, tea party and Trump flags.

As people lined up outside the door at West Geauga Middle School, some carried signs that read: “No Mandates,” “Fear is the Real Pandemic,” “Survival Rate 0-17 is 99.99998%” and “No Mask, No Jab. Only Jesus Saves.”

A man wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “Trump Won.”

However, among them were others, wearing masks and carrying signs that read, “Save Our Students. Mandate Masks,” “If it’s Masks You Hate, Just Vaccinate” and “Spread Kindness, Not COVID.”

Rumors had been circulating throughout the day that reporters from major networks would be there. One vehicle had a sign that read, “ABC Nightline — The Original ‘Fake News’ Psy Op.”

Four camera crews threaded their way through the crowd, as reporters interviewed people at random.

Once inside the middle school gym, the camera crews set up in the middle of the room, pointing toward the table where school board members would be sitting.

For several weeks, controversy over mask mandates at West Geauga Schools has grown to a fever pitch, beginning with four concerned parents at the Aug. 9 school board meeting asking the officials not to mandate masks in school.

On Aug. 13, Superintendent Richard Markwardt announced that, due to increased COVID-19 numbers in the area, masks would be required in all school buildings.

The next school board meeting, Aug. 23, erupted in heckling and loud protests from dozens of sign-carrying people, as others sat quietly, masked, on the other side of the room. Board members allowed for extra time for public comments at the beginning of that meeting, but only the first people who signed up ahead of time to speak were able to do so in the allotted time.

All those spoke against the mask mandate.

Monday’s meeting had a slightly smaller, more subdued crowd, holding up their signs as the cameras rolled. Board members walked in quietly, masked, took their seats and the meeting began peacefully.

Board President Chet Ramey announced there would be 30 minutes allotted for public comment and each person would be limited to five minutes.

“Please remain civil and address the board,” Ramey told the audience. “If you’re disruptive, you may be asked to leave.”

The first six speakers complimented the school board on their decision to mandate masks. To some, the mask decision means keeping the schools open for in-person learning; to others, masks give some peace of mind until children under the age of 12 can be vaccinated.

Wearing a mask is a small price to pay if it protects one person, they told the board.

Some dissenting comments were heard from the crowd — though an apparent contrast from the heckling at the former meeting.

Sally Contizano, of Chester Township, told the board she has lived in the community for 51 years and two of her children are West Geauga graduates from the classes of 2016 and 2020.

“They both wear masks to school in college,” she told the board. “People in this district care about each other and support each other. We are family, friends, neighbors and community.”

She said when her husband died in 2017, the outpouring of love and concern from the community were a blessing to her and her family.

“My daughter is immuno-compromised,” she told the board. “She is vaccinated, but not fully covered. Her friends would want to protect her. I support masks in school and the West G school board’s decision to protect our students, because we are family, friends, neighbors and community.”

The board voted unanimously to allow the public comments to continue for another 15 minutes. Three others spoke, two of them opposing the mask mandate.

Ramey thanked all for their comments.

“We know it remains a divisive issue,” Ramey told the crowd. “But thanks to the efforts of our staff, teachers and students, we have only four active COVID cases among our students and four cases among our staff. We are doing what we can to keep schools open, keep in-person instruction and keep maximum participation in extra-curriculars.”

Photo caps

Diane Ryder/KMG

A crowd gathers before the West Geauga Schools Board of Education meeting Sept. 13.

 

Diane Ryder/KMG

Media video cameras record comments during the West Geauga Schools Board of Education meeting Sept. 13.