“They can’t arrest all of us,” the Rev. Tony Spell, of Central, shouted last week spurring an angry crowd of people who refused to don masks at a hearing convened to decide whether the governor has the authority to order school children to wear masks in class, or if that power lies with locals.

As the hearing spiraled out of control, the state Board of Elementary & Secondary Education abruptly adjourned, leaving in place a statewide mask mandate for school children that protesters wanted overridden.

School grounds turned battlefields shouldn’t be surprising. It has been that way for a century. The mask debate is just the latest imbroglio.

Couple days earlier, a legislative hearing on the same issue threatened similar chaos. But State Capitol sergeants-at-arms proved much more adept at handling anti-maskers than the Department of Public Safety officers in charge of the state building where BESE’s meeting took place.

Before the House Health & Welfare Committee, anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers likened school mask mandates to child abuse, testified that other treatments were better than vaccines, said government officials routinely lied, and charged the media with over-exaggerating the pandemic.

From New York to Colorado to Florida anti-mask rallies captured headlines as spiking COVID-19 infections have left other parents supporting masks for children returning to school. A video of anti-maskers in Tennessee accosting pro-maskers — “There’s a place for you guys. There’s a bad place in hell,” yelled one — amassed about 3 million views.

Gov. John Bel Edwards on his monthly radio show the afternoon after the BESE meeting suggested opposition to the mask requirement came from a small, vocal minority.

But the Democratic governor’s mask mandate for school children is opposed by Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, who says BESE has the last word on whether the state or local authorities can order roughly 700,000 public school students to wear face coverings. Landry’s position is supported by 64 of the 68 members in the Louisiana House Republican majority.

Still, a lot of the parents at the BESE meeting do look familiar.

Take Stacy Hudson. Her photo appeared on the front page of these newspapers with her 6-year-old daughter holding a sign: “UNMASK OUR CHILDREN.”

“My child, my choice,” Hudson told reporters.

The last time Stacy Hudson and her daughter appeared in The Advocate was in 2017 when her husband, Dwight, was sworn as a Baton Rouge Metro Council member.

Proud of her political activism, Hudson met her husband more than a decade ago at a Tea Party meeting. She is a regular at rallies opposing taxes to upgrade the riverfront and pay for the city’s bus system. She supported the breakaway of St. George neighborhoods from Baton Rouge to form their own city. And she has been on the front lines of school policy debates.

This is not really new. A passel of parents has exercised their First Amendment rights to protest the teaching of evolution in the 1920s-1930s and sex education in the 1960s-1970s. Sticky social issues have played out at the top of parents’ lungs for generations, such as busing to achieve school desegregation.

In 1981, Louisiana required schools to teach religious beliefs as alternative scientific theories, called “creation science,” which the courts overturned. And in the 2010s, minimum academic standards, called Common Core, led to rallies around Louisiana and at the State Capitol.

As president of the Council for Better Louisiana, Barry Erwin has shared the stage with opponents to educational policies for years. “My experience over these issues is that a number of parents, it’s not a majority of parents, but a smaller core of parents is willing to come to the Capitol and express their opinions, very loudly,” he said.

The group has the ear of legislators and they raise awareness among other parents as well. Lawmakers generally listen to the complaints, make some changes to policy that appeases the majority’s concerns and then moves on. For Common Core, some of the milestones were changed and the name was dropped; otherwise the standards remain in place.

Everything could change by the time BESE meets again in October. An increase in vaccinations could slow the dramatic spread of COVID-19, which is mostly among the unvaccinated, and masks may no longer be needed.

Then, parents can return to the debate over how much Black history can be taught in social studies classes.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.