NORTHAMPTON, Pa. – Northampton Area School District's "20 strong men" meeting was dominated by anti-mask advocates who were loud and sometimes insulting, but there was no storming of the board.
Several police officers and Northampton County deputies were at Northampton Area High School Monday night to keep order. Steve Lynch, the Republican candidate for Northampton County executive, said during a recent speech that he would bring "20 strong men" to the meeting, remove the board and reverse the district's mask mandate.
Lynch said his comments were not a threat.
"I'm not about violence," Lynch said before the meeting. "It was never about violence."
District residents spoke out against masks by about 14-1, but the issue goes beyond NASD. The school board voted in July to make masks optional, then in August to make them mandatory, prompting Lynch to make his "20 strong men" comment. Pennsylvania made masks mandatory in all schools effective Sept. 7, citing an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Since then, district teacher and coach Michael Gurdineer has died from complications of COVID-19, and in the first two weeks of school, NASD has recorded 41 cases among students and placed 185 students and staff in quarantine.
Board President David Gogel addressed the mask issue at the start of the meeting, linking wearing masks to keeping students in class, not at home.
"Although there may be disagreement about which mitigation measures to use for avoiding infection from COVID-19, there is no disagreement that schools need to stay open for in-person instruction five days per week, as 98% of our parents have chosen in-person learning for their child," Gogel said, reading a prepared statement.
He said if the virus spreads in the schools, "we may not have enough resources to continue with in-person learning."
Later, residents made arguments that have been made across the region and the country: they said masks do not prevent the spread of the coronavirus; masks are bad for children; young people are not at risk; and that parents' rights supersede the authority of schools.
Mike Meyers of Walnutport appealed to a higher power, reading from the Book of Psalms until Gogel asked him to stop. Meyers then said that teachers' union dues go to Democrats, "the party that supports depravity."
Mandy Housenick talked about her 7-year-old daughter: "I told her she was going to have to wear a mask. She cried."
Board members were called cowards and hypocrites. "You should all be ashamed of yourselves," Brian McCulloch said.
Another speaker likened mask mandates to Nazism, mentioning what happened to "Jews in Germany," adding, "the same thing's going to happen here."
Gogel reminded speakers multiple times that the public comment period of the meeting is for residents to make statements, not to engage in back-and-forth with the board.
One woman spoke in favor of masks, and was laughed at by the anti-mask crowd.
"Wearing a mask is a small thing," Nan Sell-Perry said. "Each of us can do this small thing" to protect others, she said.
Lynch accused the board of enacting "politically correct health care policies." He said vaccines are "experimental drugs" and accused the board of violating the constitutional rights of parents.
"We the people are not asking permission," Lynch said. The expression "We the People," from the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, is a staple of his campaign.
Mask-wearing was required Monday night, and the 130 who attended the meeting had to go through metal detectors before entering the high school auditorium. As the meeting wore on, a few people removed masks or dropped them to chin level. An officer reminded at least one woman to put the face covering back on.
The board was threatened with lawsuits and political opposition, and was urged to reject the state mandate.
When the board said comments would be cut off at 30 minutes total, a man stood and shouted, "There are 20 strong men here."
The board extended public comment time to 49 minutes total, allowing all residents who wished to speak publicly to do so.
Afterward, NASD Superintendent Joseph Kovalchik said he appreciated that speakers were generally respectful. He said the board listens to all who address it.
"The Board of Education is going to have to process the information they heard tonight," he said.
Kovalchik also said the first two weeks of school have gone well.
During the meeting, NASD Business Administrator Matthew Sawarynski was granted a new five-year contract that will pay him $141,000 in the first year.