Stamford Advocate

Mask protesters shut down CT school briefing

Annual summit spirals into shouting — and confrontat­ion with Lamont

- By Ken Dixon and Cayla Bamberger

About 20 anti-mask protesters confronted top state officials at an annual back-to-school event Wednesday in a Cheshire elementary school, abruptly shutting down the discussion, with at least one protester heckling Gov. Ned Lamont right to his vehicle.

The event was billed as a roundtable discussion at Highland Elementary School with a group of top state education and public health officials to address the start of the 2021-22 school year.

The meeting was supposed to fo- cus on ways to safely maintain inperson instructio­n for students and faculty amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The protesters grumbled through the first half hour, holding anti-mask signs and allegedly calling out Dr. Deidre Gifford, acting commission­er of the state Department of Public Health, but stayed in their seats in the cafeteria.

Witnesses said that about a half-hour into the discussion, the confrontat­ion escalated and the event, featuring Lamont, state Department of Education Commission­er Charlene Russell-Tucker and other education and health officials from throughout the state, was abandoned. At least one protester singled out Lamont, who was escorted out of the building by his state police security detail.

One witness said the protester allegedly shoved one of the security detail and went up to the window of Lamont’s car.

Later in the afternoon, at a Hartford vaccinatio­n center, Lamont said health and education profession­als have the best interests of school children and their families at heart. He did wonder about the role models displayed in the loud, expletivel­aced confrontat­ions.

“I was surprised to see young mothers with two 7-year-olds, one in either hand, shouting vulgaritie­s and being as rude as they were,” Lamont told reporters, admitting some shock. “We’re all sitting there. We’re trying to keep their kids safe. We’re trying to do it in the best way we can possible. It’s not Connecticu­t.”

Lamont said he has received support from academic profession­als for his order, which requires all school children and staff to wear masks until at least Sept. 30.

“There’s no kid under the age of 12 who’s been vaccinated and it’s really important to keep these kids safe,” Lamont said. “So every superinten­dent that was there at the roundtable said ‘thank you for stepping up and making sure that our kids can be safe in the classroom, so that Connecticu­t will not be like Florida.’ They’re in the classroom. We don’t have to quarantine. We don’t have to go home. They can keep learning and they can keep playing football.”

About 40 minutes after the

discussion started, it abruptly ended when the group of protesters became louder.

Cheshire Police Chief Neil Dryfe said the crowd of about 20 protesters dispersed once the governor left and no arrests were made.

“I received a text from a town official who was in attendance, saying that things were getting a little heated. By the time I walked to the school, which is right behind the police station, the governor was in his car and pulling away from the building,” Dryfe said.

“There were no complaints made by anyone in attendance and the CPD took no action of any kind against anyone present. Once the governor left, the crowd of approximat­ely 20 people dispersed.”

Throughout the first half hour, calls could be heard from the back of the room, asking panelists, who had microphone­s, to to speak louder. As Gifford spoke about close contact and COVID quarantine procedures, the crowd became more disruptive.

“If I could ask that we could

show a little decorum,” said the event’s moderator, Jeff Solan, the superinten­dent of Cheshire Public Schools.

Solan wrapped up his questions and turned the discussion over to the media for questions. About 40 minutes into the meeting, Solin brought the event to a close as protesters’ shouts grew louder.

“We all kind of recognized there wasn’t going to be a good, productive conversati­on at that point,” said Kate Dias, president of the Connecticu­t Education Associatio­n, the state’s largest teachers union.

When the round table ended, Dias said she spoke with one of the protesters, who expressed distrust in the COVID-19 vaccines. The union president said she explained to the individual that while she did not agree, she could hear her fears and concerns.

Before the meeting spiraled, Gifford tried to address questions about vaccine and mask mandates.

Asked what happens after

Lamont’s executive order expires on Sept. 30, the commission­er said her department is monitoring other states where school districts have already reopened.

“We’re seeing that in schools where masks were not required at the beginning of the school year, and there was lots of COVID in the community, we’ve seen very significan­t disruption­s to inperson learning,” she said.

Gifford said the state’s priority is to keep kids in classrooms and “adjust mitigation strategies as the conditions merit.”

Democrats were quick to criticize the protesters’ takeover of the back-to-school event.

“The Connecticu­t Republican­s like to say they are past the extremism of the Trump era,” Democratic State Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo said. “But mask protests like today’s in Cheshire are happening across the state. Disagreein­g on policy is part of our process. But this behavior, and similar protests at recent Board of Education meetings in Bristol and Fairfield, has no place in political discourse.”

Conservati­ve state Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, whose district includes Cheshire, posted a photo of the cafeteria on Facebook and wrote: “God bless these parents for fighting for their freedoms, their rights as parents, and the rest of us who reassert our rights as free citizens.”

State Sen. Tony Hwang, RFairfield, who as the top Republican on the legislativ­e Public Health Committee and attended the round table, said he did not feel threatened by the crowd, which should have given more deference to Lamont and the other agency heads.

“They were in the back, but they were very, very loud,” Hwang said of the protesters. “You could sense their frustratio­n. There may be a perception that they might be vocal elements and not reflective of the general population. But the presentati­on didn’t offer a lot of benchmarks data and medical data points. That was frustratin­g for me.”

He said the disruption eclipsed the testimony of the state officials. “It kept escalating,” Hwang said in a late-afternoon interview. “I sat in the front and all I kept hearing was the peanut gallery comments. They got increasing­ly numerous and persistent. I understood why they just picked up with 20 minutes to go, and the people followed the governor outside. These are parents who felt a tremendous disconnect.”

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, ranking member of the legislativ­e Education Committee, said later Wednesday afternoon that the rhetoric is getting too hot and there’s a need for some kind of way to get all sides working together on addressing the health and educationa­l challenges the delta variant is creating.

Hwang said he wants to work harder to encourage more people to get vaccinated. “I believe in the science even though I believe in choice,” Hwang said.

 ??  ?? Lamont
 ?? Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo ?? Acting Public Health Commission­er Dr. Deidre Gifford was among state officials who were heckled in Cheshire on Wednesday.
Hearst Connecticu­t Media file photo Acting Public Health Commission­er Dr. Deidre Gifford was among state officials who were heckled in Cheshire on Wednesday.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States