A high school student in Tennessee was about a minute into his impassioned plea for a district-wide mask mandate during a school board meeting Tuesday when members of the audience interrupted him.
“No,” someone is heard saying as the murmurs rise, cutting him off.
The student, Grady Knox, had just finished telling the board that his grandmother died from the coronavirus because someone didn’t wear a mask.
A two-minute clip of Knox’s speech — and the audience’s reaction — during a special Rutherford County School Board meeting has circulated on social media, prompting criticism of those who appeared to mock him.
The board ultimately agreed to keep face masks optional at school.
Jeers, heckles and laughter
In the video, Knox told the school board he is a junior at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro.
“Last year, we had masks at school and we know that they worked because we could stay in school all year,” he said. “This year we’ve already had to shut down because of a lack of staff in the school — and we’re only a month into it. This is going to continue if we don’t have a mask mandate.”
Rutherford County Schools had to close Friday after at least 14 bus drivers called out “for a COVID-related reason” along with 55 cafeteria workers, the district said.
All Rutherford County Schools will be closed Friday, Sept. 3, because of staffing issues — especially those in our cafeterias and buses. A message is under way to parents and you can see the full message in attachment. pic.twitter.com/YYECujUtqz
— RC Schools (@rucoschools) September 1, 2021
Knox described the concern among students who have to miss school if they are exposed to COVID-19 and his fear of bringing the virus home.
“I’m worried about my family,” Knox told the board. “If I get COVID, I’m going to bring it to my family, and I talk to my grandparents a lot. They’re higher risk than me, so I don’t want to give them COVID.”
Knox then mentioned the death of a family member.
“This time last year, my grandmother, who was a former teacher at the Rutherford County school system, died of COVID because someone wasn’t wearing a mask,” he said.
A woman sitting behind Knox can be seen in the video smirking and shaking her head. Knox tried to continue speaking — but the audience’s comments stopped him.
Someone was heard saying “shut up,” but it’s unclear if the comment was directed at Knox or the attendees heckling him. Another person said “listen!” before a second “shut up” is heard.
Finally, a school board member cuts through the din.
“Hey guys, we’re here to act professional,” he said. “Please, sir, go ahead.”
Knox thanked him in response and finished his speech.
“This is an avoidable issue, and by not wearing masks in schools, it’s irresponsible,” he told the board. “We’re killing people. This is not something that we should be doing for the education of our students.”
‘Quit yelling all the problems’
The meeting continued for two hours after Knox finished, with other students, parents and teachers coming to the podium to speak.
Meghan Mangrum, education reporter for The Tennessean, tweeted that the board was having the “most thoughtful conversation” about “negligence, health care recommendations and protocols” but was still being heckled by the audience.
By the end, there was no motion to institute a mask mandate.
“This is something that’s going to take time,” Board Chairman Coy Young said at the close of the meeting. “We didn’t get in this mess overnight. We’re not going to get out of it overnight, so we’ve got to figure out some way to come up with some solutions and quit yelling all the problems.”
The board’s decision comes about a month after parents in neighboring Williamson County were seen on video threatening health care professionals leaving a school board meeting following the board’s decision to institute a mask requirement.
Will Severn, a Rutherford County student, told Fox Nashville he feared a similar “kind of chaos” if the school board voted Tuesday to require masks.
“The fact that for the most part we were the adults in the room spoke volumes about the debate that was had yesterday,” he said.
Will Severn, a Rutherford County student, is speaking out after his peer was heckled by parents at Tuesday night's special meeting. “The fact that we were the adults in the room, for the most part, spoke volumes about the debate that was had yesterday.” https://t.co/ynJCEZALbk pic.twitter.com/eokkkjwtPG
— FoxNashville (@FOXNashville) September 9, 2021
The video of Knox is not the first to show how contentious the debate about face masks has become more than 18 months into the pandemic.
In Arkansas, a 40-year-old man was arrested Tuesday after he refused to leave a city council meeting, even telling the police chief at one point to “arrest me,” McClatchy News reported. The man was not wearing a mask despite an ordinance requiring them in city buildings.
A dad in Dripping Springs, Texas, stripped during a school board meeting to prove a point about face masks saving lives and, 30 miles away in Austin, a teacher had her mask ripped off by angry parents during a “meet the teacher” event.
In Ohio, someone flew a banner on the first day of school in Chagrin Falls that said, “MUZZLE THE SCHOOL BOARD NOT OUR KIDS!”