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Chaotic shouting, unmasked crowds stop BESE meeting about school mask mandate

Despite repeated pleas from board members asking the audience to mask up, few did so.

BATON ROUGE, La. — A crowd of anti-mask protesters at a state board of education meeting forced board members to adjourn early before they had a chance to discuss the mask mandate for schools that they were protesting against in the first place. 

The BESE meeting began at 9 a.m. in Baton Rouge, with board members set to discuss Attorney General Jeff Landry's opinion that they had the final say on whether schools would require students to be masked. 

The board members were set to make a formal vote on the opinion, essentially deciding if they would follow Gov. John Bel Edwards' statewide mask mandate in classrooms. 

The meeting comes amid a big surge in cases in Louisiana - the state with the highest per capita number of cases and deaths over the past few weeks.

There were 6,606 new cases reported in Louisiana Wednesday and 28 percent of those cases were found in children. 

There were 87 new deaths reported. Wednesday’s hospitalization total for Louisiana is 3,022, which is a pandemic high of people in the hospitals, a record Louisiana has broken every day since July 27. Hospitals and ICUs are filling up – Louisiana only has 11% of its ICU beds available right now.

But a crowd of mostly unmasked protesters filling the room waylaid that plan. Despite repeated pleas from board members asking the audience to mask up, few did so.

As the board moved through the agenda items on the docket before the mask discussion, the crowd became increasingly restless. As they came back from an executive session — that is, private discussion — of the state superintendent's job performance, one member of the crowd began shouting at them. 

When one of the board members reminded them that they were bound by the statewide mask mandate, and told audience members they would be removed for not complying, a woman began yelling: 

"I can't hear you with the masks on. I read lips and I'm sick of it." 

A sign language interpreter was at the front of the room, unmasked, and was mouthing along with the board members as they spoke, in a common ASL practice to accommodate for lip reading.

Despite the board's threat that the mask mandate would be enforced, LSP troopers in the room did nothing to remove or otherwise engage with the anti-mask group. They were at one point briefly seen walking up and down the aisles of the audience section. 

As they neared the end of the agenda, the mask mandate, board members appeared to become more irritated with the audience's repeated outbursts. The group was warned that the meeting could be adjourned if BESE couldn't get through the business it needed to. 

Finally, just two committee reports from the mask mandate agenda item, the situation reached a tipping point, with a board member calling a vote to adjourn shortly before noon. 

Infighting broke out among audience members over whether they would follow the rules, with one person shouting to the board, asking them not to adjourn. 

"We'll wear the mask! Please don't do this," one person could be heard saying. 

But by then, it was too late. The board voted 8-2 to adjourn early because the audience refused to follow the mask mandate, angering the protesters. 

All throughout the meeting, deep coughing could be heard from somebody in the crowd. 

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