Despite rule, people unmasked at Turlock Unified meeting
For about 25 minutes on Tuesday night, a Turlock Unified administrator and members of the public attended a school board meeting without a mask despite the board rule requiring face coverings when students are in attendance.
It was the first board meeting involving student representatives since they were told to leave on November 16 because adults refused to wear face coverings. The board passed a resolution at a special meeting on Nov. 29 requiring masks when students attend at the district’s request. This applies to two high school students who sit on the board of trustees and to students invited as laureates.
At the special meeting, which the students did not attend, people did not wear masks as administrators and members of the public insisted on details of how the board would enforce its rules.
Deputy Superintendent Barney Gordon said those who choose not to wear masks will be invited to participate via a live broadcast in a separate room. When asked what would happen if people didn’t comply, Gordon said: “We will cross this bridge if it were to happen.”
Tuesday was the first opportunity for the board to show how the app would or wouldn’t work.
While not in place from the start, district officials eventually put in place a system for Administrator Jeffrey Cortinas, who has not worn a mask in previous meetings, to participate. remotely to the meeting which lasted about three hours.
This system could change soon. A statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces went into effect Wednesday through January 15.
Before the meeting began, Gordon presented a few masked protesters with masks near the back of the conference hall. They firmly refused and remained in their seats.
Board chair Lori Carlson initially marked Cortinas’ absence. He entered two minutes later, without a mask.
His colleagues did not recognize that he was flouting the rule. Carlson continued to speak and began the public comment section of the meeting.
Cortinas asked to add to the minutes that he was not late but was waiting to log into the meeting from the separate room. He says he encountered technical difficulties.
He and a few other unmasked people stayed through all the public commentary, unchallenged by district staff or the board.
In a comment provided to The Modesto Bee on Wednesday morning, Cortinas said he offered to use a plastic partition after the district recognized his mask exemption. (In a previous meeting, Cortinas said he had requested a medical exemption months earlier and had not received a formal denial.)
District officials asked him to wear a face shield, Cortinas said. “To keep it simple, I said I was open to teleconferencing for meetings, which the district agreed to,” he said.
A few people who spoke out against masks and vaccines at last month’s special meeting again urged the board to allow them the freedom to choose. One man called a face covering an “unwanted medical intervention” and said requiring masks – as directed by the state – was not within the purview of local authorities.
Former district science professor Ryan Hollister, who now teaches at Stanislaus State University and Modesto Junior College, entered the meeting room to give the final public comment. Then he came out. He said he watched the livestream from home.
Hollister asked directors how they plan to enforce the masks. “Looks like the bridge has been crossed tonight,” he said.
It was “overwhelming to the soul” to see the district unable to enforce the rules, he said.
“There is no business that is worth anyone’s life,” added Hollister, “especially with the omicron going around now.”
The trustees then went in camera. When they returned for more than two and a half hours of open session, Cortinas was not with them. He watched video of the meeting from a nearby room and spoke through a loudspeaker.
Eventually, the community members seated at the back of the hall without masks also left. Bee couldn’t determine if they were watching from the other room.
In his statement to The Bee, Cortinas said the initial technical issues and communication issues have been resolved. “The accommodations were made by the district and myself,” he said. “I think the next meeting will be of a similar format and hopefully less bumpy in the future.”
In a comment at the end of the meeting, Cortinas said he spoke with Superintendent Dana Trevethan about how the board had reached such a tense point.
Cortinas had previously accused the board of targeting him with the resolution to follow public health guidelines on masks. Other administrators called him a bully. “I forgive Dana, I forgive the board for everything that happened, and I humbly ask forgiveness too,” he said.