BERRYVILLE — Police were summoned to a Clarke County School Board meeting Monday night after a woman protesting the mask mandate refused to put on a face covering.
The unidentified woman wasn’t arrested, and she left on her own initiative after talking with a police officer, according to Berryville Police Chief Neal White.
It was the first time that such a protest occurred within the board’s meeting room at the schools’ administrative building on West Main Street.
The state health commissioner on Aug. 12 issued an order for the current academic year requiring all students, teachers, staff and visitors ages 2 and older to wear masks indoors in both private and public schools, regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status. Masks also are required at school board meetings held indoors.
Clarke’s school board is complying with the mandates.
“It’s our policy as a school division,” said board Chairwoman Monica Singh-Smith. She compared it to other policies implemented by the division, such as smoking not being allowed in buildings.
Without a mask on, the woman entered the board room about 10 minutes before 6:30 p.m., when the meeting was scheduled to start. She indicated that she planned to speak during a public comment period in opposition to the mask requirements.
Both board member Jonathan Turkel and Assistant Superintendent Rick Catlett approached the woman, told her about the mandate and asked her to put on a mask. Catlett offered her one.
“I will not comply,” she said, insisting that she wasn’t breaking the law.
Singh-Smith declared that she wouldn’t open the meeting until the woman either put on a mask or left the building.
“This is baloney,” the woman said. “Your mask mandate is ridiculous.”
“Get the masks off our kids,” she shouted from her seat in the audience.
Katie Kerr-Hobert, the board’s vice chairman, apologized to the audience for “making everybody stay longer” than necessary for the meeting.
“I’m not sorry,” the woman said.
More than a dozen people — mostly employees of the schools — were in the audience. All spectators but the unidentified woman were wearing masks.
The woman chided them.
“You should be ashamed, not standing up and thinking for yourselves,” she said.
Singh-Smith and Superintendent Chuck Bishop left the room. Bishop had his cellphone in his hand.
A few minutes later, a Berryville police officer entered the room.
“Can I talk with you a second?” the officer asked the woman. They exited the room together.
They didn’t return when Singh-Smith and Bishop re-entered the room and the meeting was called to order.
“Sorry for the delay. We had some business to attend to,” Singh-Smith said.
In a Tuesday morning email, White told The Winchester Star that police didn’t prepare an incident report because no charges were lodged against the woman.
“Officers briefly spoke with the female concerning the meeting regulations and she then left the site of her own accord,” he wrote, adding that was all the information he had on the incident.
He said he didn’t have the woman’s name or home address.
The 2021-22 academic year in the Clarke County Public Schools began Aug. 31. The start of the year marked students’ return to in-classroom learning five days a week.
Students started the previous year learning entirely online. Later, they returned to classrooms for up to four days a week.
So far, school activities have progressed about as normal as they can amid the ongoing pandemic protocols, officials said.
“We’re upholding the recommendations of the CDC (the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the Virginia Department of Health,” Bishop said.
All teachers and administrators want students in classes daily, but the division must abide by rules for quarantining and isolating students believed to have been exposed to the coronavirus, he emphasized.
And, “our staff does not deserve to be berated or mistreated” because they are complying with mandates, he added.
As the year proceeds, “we need to get ... to a place where we can focus on education” instead of dealing with fallout from the pandemic, said Turkel.