Public Comment Gets Heated at BOE Meeting

By JULIA BONAVITACOLA
For The Leader/Times

GARWOOD — Parents of Garwood students addressed the board of education June 22 during the public comment to speak out against the mask requirements still being followed at Lincoln School. The public comment went on for nearly 40 minutes, with multiple parents speaking up.

The public comment began with Salvatore Piarulli. Mr. Piarulli began by saying that the board of education was required to listen to his full comment without interruption or time limit because of the “New York Times versus Sullivan” case of 1964. He then went on to address the plan for the upcoming school year, specifically the topic of “Maintaining Health and Safety,” that outlined multiple rules for students to follow. This includes social distancing and wearing a mask for the duration of the school day. Mr. Piarulli had several questions. “How many doctors or experts…were a part of this committee? Did [this committee] take into consideration that more than 50 school districts gave the option for parents to unmask their children and, in the three weeks, there has not been one single case of Covid?” Mr. Piarulli said that the disclaimer that the requirements could change is a cop-out for the committee to not take responsibility.

“It is in my best interest to keep my child healthy. Wearing a mask eight hours a day not only jeopardizes his health, as proven by the science, but also jeopardizes his ability to get a proper education,” said Mr. Piarulli. He asked the board to reword the verbiage of the mandate to give people the choice to mask their children.

Other public comments concurred with those of Mr. Piarulli. Linda Morello said that her son was not allowed any breaks from wearing his mask except for one time when the air conditioning was broken and the temperature outside was hot. Ms. Morello said that the masks prevented her son from reading social cues from his teachers and vice versa. “This isn’t normal at all and I refuse to pretend that it is,” she said while reading her statement. She also claimed that when her son said that he was willing to wear a mask if it meant saving another life, that this idea was “drilled into his head by teachers and administrators” with an agenda.

After two more statements of a similar nature from Heather Loffredo and Matt Howard, President Ralph Trentacosta turned the response over to John Geppert, the education attorney. Mr. Geppert first cleared up the Open Public Meetings Act that allowed the board of education to determine the length of the public comment. Mr. Piarulli interjected that he believed this was not constitutional and that it was a cowardly response. Mr. Geppert proceeded to explain the contents of the “New York Times versus Sullivan” case while Mr. Piarulli attempted to speak over him, claiming that Mr. Geppert was lying about the contents of the case. “You’re spinning it and lying. That case was specific to First Amendment rights…We have as much time as we want,” said Mr. Piarulli.

The Open Public Meetings Act of New Jersey states that no action can be taken to leave the public out of participation in any meeting “except that a municipal governing body and a board of education shall be required to set aside a portion of every meeting of the municipal governing body or board of education, the length of the portion to be determined by the municipal governing body or board of education.” (N.J.S.A. 10:4-12(a).

Mr. Piarulli continued to speak out of turn, saying, “This is a public meeting where you’re trying to limit and mute the public…You don’t want to hear from us, you do not want to hear the truth, you do not want to hear the facts. This is, as parents have stated, about control.” Mr. Piarulli also accused Mr. Geppert of spinning the facts “behind closed doors.”

Mr. Geppert said, “We also have the authority to remove people from board meetings or to mute them during the course, if they interfere…We are giving you the permission to speak out of turn, which you’ve done repeatedly, and we’ll accommodate your views. But I am telling you what the Open Public Meetings Act states and I am stating it accurately…”

Mr. Geppert also addressed the original problem that the public spoke about regarding the mask mandate. “I understand that this is a topic that has statewide concern and is very controversial with views by different people,” he said. Mr. Geppert was interrupted by Ms. Morello, who said that the mask mandate was “child abuse.”

Mr. Geppert continued, “The boards of education are working in accordance with state law…Executive Order 242 specifically excluded schools from any mask relaxation. It’s based on the current guidance by the CDC, which controls this area…On June 7, the governor did make a statement where he indicated that the mask mandate for K-12 schools in New Jersey remains in place except in circumstances of extreme heat or health concerns.”

Mr. Piarulli, Ms. Morello and Mr. Howard interrupted Mr. Geppert again to say that they wanted the choice to wear a mask or not, with Ms. Moreno saying that those who support the mask mandate should be fired because of the child abuse it caused. Mr. Geppert reiterated that the authority was with the governor on this issue and that Garwood was following the executive order.

The board of education has not announced any plans to review or change the mask mandate for school as of press time. On Monday, Governor Phil Murphy announced his intention to drop the mask mandate for schools in September, and allow each district to adopt their own regulations.

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