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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane school board meeting goes virtual after confrontation with anti-maskers

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

Members of the Spokane School Board moved their meeting from in person to virtual Wednesday after a call for some audience members to wear facemasks resulted in what one board member described as “total chaos.”

Board members convened in person for just over a minute before adjourning to a virtual meeting. They did so after School Board President Michael Wiser asked unmasked audience members to wear masks in accordance to the state’s COVID-19 mandate, which requires masking in K-12 facilities regardless of vaccination status.

The Spokesman-Review obtained audio from Wednesday’s meeting; video was unavailable from the in-person portion. Several people are heard speaking over Wiser during his request, including one who shouted “freedom.”

“We do teach our kids that we follow the laws that we are obligated to follow and we want to set a good example that way,” Wiser said to Wednesday night’s audience, “so we will entertain a motion to adjourn to a virtual meeting.”

The meeting room was filled to capacity Wednesday, said Wiser, who added the abrupt response made it clear a live meeting – in accordance with the mandate – wouldn’t be possible.

“Don’t run away like cowards!” someone yelled as the board adjourned.

People then pushed past security toward the dais with “a lot of different papers,” including public records requests and letters to the board encouraging alternatives to mask mandates, Wiser said.

“There was a lot of yelling and I think some folks trying to be confrontational physically, which is unfortunate,” he said. “There was definitely some foul language that was pretty loud. I think a lot of staff and board members were very uncomfortable with the situation, but we were able to exit pretty easily.”

Board member Nikki Lockwood tweeted, “Let’s hope it never gets worse than tonight.” She declined to comment when reached Thursday.

“Angry, unmasked people stormed the (dais), threw papers at us, apparently ‘serving’ us (with) legal papers while swearing at us, including our new student advisor,” she tweeted. “Total chaos. We went virtual shortly thereafter.”

Wiser said, “I personally wouldn’t use the term ‘total chaos,’ but it was, at a minimum, very uncomfortable and made a lot of people nervous. There was a lot of anger in the room.”

The school board did have some advanced warning of what was to come.

Earlier that afternoon, they were notified of a social media post that encouraged anyone who “believes in medical freedom, bodily autonomy, and or the rights of parents to make choices for their children’s well-being, or is tired of their tax dollars being spent on bio hazardous disposable masks” to attend the meeting, according to a screenshot sent to the School Board.

The post alluded to paperwork board members were given Wednesday, which was “served with intent to challenge their surety bonds.” The poster aimed to pack the building “to ensure the entire board is served and not able to run away to a zoom room once again,” according to the post.

Russell Neff, one of the organizers of the parent group Open Spokane Schools, said the school board may have received batches of different documents Wednesday from different groups. He said Open Spokane Schools is not affiliated with any documents related to bond challenges.

Neff was one of three people who read parts of a cover letter during their three-minute increments allotted during the public comment period. Indicating that school board members were issued Freedom of Information Act requests, the cover letter complained that local school boards have ceded decision-making authority on these issues to the Washington State School Directors’ Association and the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Neff on Thursday disputed Lockwood’s description of events, saying he never saw anyone throw any papers at her.

“As we finish the 2021-22 school year, we envision a harmonious partnership between parents, school district leadership and legislators to restore the freedom of personal choice over what our teachers and students wear on their faces and put in their bodies as well as restore authority to local level of government,” Neff said Wednesday. “However, if these freedoms are ignored by the Spokane Public School Board, many will take their children out of the public school system by fall of 2022.”

Wiser said the board’s security team – which, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, was usually one security officer – included at least three to four people Wednesday.

The school board does not plan to hold in-person meetings that are out of compliance with the state mandate, Wiser said. He also said members won’t have security or police remove people from the meeting.

“We don’t see that as worth that confrontation,” Wiser said. “We could, if we wanted to, have just fully virtual meetings and not even attempt in person, but we just hope that emotions take a step down a bit and we’re able to meet in person and be in the same room as the public.”

Wednesday was not the first time the Spokane School Board has had to adjourn a live meeting due to pushback on masking. Members did so in August and again about a month ago, Wiser said.

The meeting took place the same day Gov. Jay Inslee announced the mask requirement for large outdoor events will lift Feb. 18. And while the governor has not yet given a date for lifting the indoor mask mandate, he said he plans to announce that next week.

Washington is one of at least a dozen states with a mask mandate in schools, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. Four – Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon – recently announced plans to rescind their mandates in February or March.

“It’s too bad that it came to such a boiling point when it looks like we could be at the tail end of the very mandates that these folks are very upset about,” Wiser said.