Anti-mask crowd disrupts Gwinnett school board meeting

Scores of audience members refused to wear masks or leave the Gwinnett County Board of Education meeting on May 20, 2021. (ALI MALK / AJC)

Credit: Alia Malik

Credit: Alia Malik

Scores of audience members refused to wear masks or leave the Gwinnett County Board of Education meeting on May 20, 2021. (ALI MALK / AJC)

Nearly 100 people refused to wear face masks as required or leave the Thursday night meeting of the Gwinnett County Board of Education, shouting and arguing until board members left and convened the meeting in another room.

Many in the crowd wore T-shirts that said, “Unmask our children,” or “We the people take back our schools.” They yelled, “no,” when board members asked them to wear masks, and chanted, “My body, my choice.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors in most situations, but must abide by laws and the rules of local businesses and workplaces. However, the government agency said schools should keep their current COVID-19 mitigation efforts through the end of the year.

In Gwinnett County Public Schools, that means a mask mandate at least until the end of the academic year on Wednesday. The district has reported more than 5,000 cases of COVID-19 among staff and students since the school year began.

Board Chair Everton Blair convened the meeting by saying, “We ask everyone to remember that visitors to this facility are required to wear masks that cover their nose and mouth.”

“If you don’t have a mask covering your mouth and nose, you will be asked to leave,” Blair said as he stared across a sea of maskless faces.

When the crowd without masks didn’t budge, the five board members and Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks left the room. They returned 10 minutes later, huddling with one of their attorneys and Jorge Gomez, executive director of administration and policy.

Board member Steve Knudsen then told the audience, “I do not want to wear this mask,” which earned him cheers.

“We are in a very fluid situation right now,” he continued. “The current policy of Gwinnett County Public Schools through the end of the year, and what we expect of our staff and students, is that we finish the year with masks.”

Shouts of “no” drowned him out.

“We have a meeting to hold,” Knudsen told them. “We value your input. The current policy stands.”

Vice Chair Karen Watkins then asked Gomez to work with security to escort out those who were not wearing masks, but the school district employees were outnumbered.

As the crowd shouted and argued with each other, many foreign language students who were waiting to be recognized for their achievements left with their families.

School district officials directed the rest of the students to a smaller meeting room, where several dozen masked Gwinnett employees and community members applauded them.

Mandy Smith, who has two children at Dacula Middle School, went without a mask and wore an “Unmask our children” shirt. Smith said she was part of a group fighting against masks for students next school year.

“They can’t proceed with the board meeting but we’ve been in the same room for over an hour,” Smith said. “We can’t talk about the important issues we came here to talk about.”

Sam Shridhar, a 10th-grader at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, stayed with his parents to be recognized for winning first place in data analytics and second in engineering design at a Technology Student Association competition.

In the end, Shridhar said, he was grateful to be recognized.

The school board moved back into the regular meeting room for the public comment session, where scores of people without masks still waited in the audience. Watkins and Tarece Johnson, another board member, quickly left the room.

Gabby Adams, 18, a senior at Mill Creek High School, stuck around wearing a mask to address the board on an unrelated topic during the public comment portion.

“It’s not that hard to just put on a mask and deal with it,” Adams said. “Health care workers, first responders deal with it for seven-plus hours. You can deal with it for two hours. It’s not a big deal.”