The Fort Payne Board of Education was greeted at its Sept. 23 meeting by a group of protesters with signs calling for an end the school system’s universal mask mandate, which could be ended or extended on Oct. 1.

Melanie Miller served as a spokesperson for the group, calling itself Patriots Empowering Patriots. She presented a petition asking that the masks be made optional for everyone entering a school property.

“I’m going to highlight all of the side effects of anyone under the age of 18 wearing a mask,” she said while giving the board members information citing the National Institutes of Health and the Solari Report suggesting that requiring children to wear masks at school causes damage outweighing the threat from the coronavirus, that the masks do not significantly reduce transmission of diseases but do adversely affect respiratory function by trapping the carbon dioxide that’s emitted when humans exhale.

The group applauded Miller when she concluded her comments.

Fort Payne Superintendent Brian Jett welcomed the group and presented information in support of the mask mandate and countering some of the “myths” being repeated. His information was compiled from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, Dr. Karen Landers of the Alabama Department of Public Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and an open letter to Alabama school boards from 102 mental health providers.

Jett presented a graph showing COVID-related absences at the four school campuses since August 18. It showed a high of 249, or 6.4%, on Sept. 2, decreasing incrementally over the next three dates, with 62 absences on Sept. 21.

“We are starting to see a decrease in our total number of absences due to COVID,” Jett said. “We hope to see that trend keep going, to stay with it. Many different school systems are doing different things. Our mask requirement ends Oct. 1 unless we decide to forward it a little bit. We’ll use the data to look at it and what’s going on in the community. Something to think about is the county fair. Could that be a super spreader? It may not be. That’s something the data will tell us--”

“Wait a minute,” one of the group interrupted. “What about football games? Boom Days?”

This prompted Board Attorney Rocky Watson to say, “If you want to stay and listen, you can, but you’re not going to disrupt the meeting. We’ll escort you out.”

Watson gestured at the door, where two uniformed Fort Payne Police Officers stood. Jett continued to speak, agreeing that bacteria can accumulate and suggesting they can do a better job of educating students on the need to wash re-useable masks between uses.

“Where do we go from here?” Jett said. “I think we go with our statistics and data [to determine] what could be next steps. It could be ending the mask requirement. We could decide that the treated air [from HVAC filters] is doing a good job. We know that we can’t end the mask requirement on transportation because they’re just too close to one another on a school bus. Should they have to continue to wear the masks in the hallways when there’s large groups intermingling? Probably. So we will do our very best to do what’s right.”

Jett thanked the group for bringing their concerns to him and the school board.

“We will listen to all sides. I’m very glad to have you here tonight. Thank you for meeting with me. I respect everyone here and your voices. The board respects your voices. This is how America should be. Everyone can have their opinion and voice their opinion. I will consult the advisement of our local healthcare providers and our school board as we move forward,” Jett said.

One of the protesters attempted to speak without being on the agenda, saying her granddaughter suffers from bacterial pneumonia, implying this is attributed to the mask requirement. She stood and left the room when instructed not to further disrupt the meeting, calling it “bulls—t.”

Moving on to the next agenda item, Jett reminded everyone about Sunday’s reception at Little Ridge Intermediate School for retiring Superintendent Jim Cunningham and Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony for new vocational facilities at the high school. He said masks will be required at both events.

After the meeting, some of the protesters lingered outside in the parking lot. They said they didn’t find Jett’s information from Johns Hopkins contradicting their own sources to be credible because billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates’ foundation donated money to it.

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