A rowdy, chaotic meeting of Louisiana's top school board ended abruptly Wednesday when opponents of face masks for public school students refused repeated pleas to put on masks as required in public buildings.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 8-2 to adjourn, which derailed a planned debate on who has the final say on school safety mandates that critics of the masks were hoping for. It also means the mandate that public school students wear face masks indoors remains intact.

Moments before the vote BESE President Sandy Holloway implored the crowd to let officials proceed in an orderly fashion. "We have business to take care of," said Holloway, who lives in Thibodaux.

Ronnie Morris, a BESE member who lives in Baton Rouge, issued a similar warning and told the group the public hearing they showed up for was in danger of getting axed. "It's your call," Morris said.

But the pleas were greeted with angry shouts from the audience, including claims that the coronavirus is not real.

Holly Boffy, a board member who lives in Lafayette, made the motion to adjourn.

The only "no" votes were cast by Jim Garvey, the longest serving BESE member who lives in Metairie, and Michael Melerine, the newest member and a Shreveport resident.

Both earlier indicated that they wanted to have a discussion on whether Gov. John Bel Edwards' order that students wear face masks was the final word or if BESE should have the final say, as Attorney General Jeff Landry said in an opinion issued earlier this month.

Holloway did not vote.

BESE is not scheduled to meet again until October.

The gathering, unlike any at BESE in the past two decades, took place amid skyrocketing cases of the delta variant in Louisiana.

Earlier in the week, the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a letter to Edwards, firmly backed the mask mandate for students.

Asked about the meeting a few hours later on his "Ask the Governor" radio show, Edwards said masks are essential for in-person learning.

"It is the only way we have a reasonable shot to keep schools open and kids safe," Edwards said. "I just wish the people of Louisiana would come to understand that."

"At the end of the day, the COVID-19 pandemic continues," the governor said. "It is worse today than it has been in the state of Louisiana and the numbers in the state of Louisiana are the worst in the country."

A largely-unmasked crowd of spectators waits during a pause for executive session, at a meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Educa…

Figures compiled by the Louisiana Department of Health show that, during the week of Aug. 9-15, the St. Tammany Parish School District had 303 students who tested positive for COVID-19; Jefferson, 203; Orleans, 262; East Baton Rouge, 108; and Lafayette, 67.

The abrupt adjournment was the culmination of a three-hour-plus gathering where much of the audience was mask-less despite Edwards' Aug. 4 order that face coverings are required in state buildings.

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About an hour before the meeting ended a BESE staff member announced that, because of the governor's order, the large number of spectators without face masks would be removed if they did not comply with the order. That sparked angry chants of "No More Masks" from the crowd.

Meanwhile, BESE members were in a nearby room in executive session to evaluate state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley. Brumley got a positive evaluation in his first job review since assuming office 14 months ago.

At one point the outburst was led by the Rev. Tony Spell, of Central, who has been embroiled in controversy off and on for months because of his repeated defiance of anti-coronavirus rules.

Pastor Tony Spell, of Life Tabernacle Church in Central, makes a strident appeal to spectators during a recess for executive committee time, d…

'They can't arrest all of us," Spell said. "The only lawbreakers are those demanding that we put a face mask on."

Despite the warning, and one earlier in the day, there was no wholesale removal of those without masks from the crowded hearing room, which has a capacity of 274.

Doug Cain, chief of staff for State Police Superintendent Lt. Col. Lamar Davis, said officials met with BESE leaders Tuesday. "We just said 'We are going to take our direction from you,'" Cain recalled telling board officials.

He said one person was removed because of disorderly conduct, but nobody was arrested.

Asked why mask-less spectators were not removed Holloway said the board "went above and beyond" to give critics a chance to be heard.

"Unfortunately, the actions and noncompliance by a majority of attendees to abide by the governor's mandate forced us to vote 8-2 to adjourn the meeting, resulting in the loss of the opportunity for those with concerns and who were happy to comply to be heard," Holloway said.

What sparked the planned hearing was an opinion by Landry on Aug. 6 that BESE, not the governor, has the final say on whether students should be required to wear face masks.

Edwards denounced Landry's opinion and said he has the clear authority to order face coverings during a public health emergency.

Melerine pleaded with the crowd to put on masks because of the governor's order.

"Please allow us to have an orderly meeting," he said.

Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) president Sandy Holloway, center, packs up after the ending of a meeting of the , Wednesday…

Morris did the same.

"The public expects us to get through the public agenda in an orderly fashion," he said.

He said medical experts were unwilling to testify in a hearing room dominated by those without face masks.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.