Berkshire Hills School Committee meeting over Zoom (copy)

Dattatreya Haynes, top, as he tries to speak during public citizen speak time at the end of the Aug. 26 Berkshire Hills School Committee meeting. Member Richard Dohoney, left, and Chairman Stephen Bannon, cut him off. 

As another school year begins anxiously thanks to a protracted pandemic, tensions between local officials, education leaders and concerned residents are roiling districts across the country. Our communities are not immune, as evidenced by a recent Berkshire Hills School Committee meeting.

The school board voted last month to require masking in schools, shortly before state education officials followed suit and mandated masking in all commonwealth public schools through Oct. 1. It was discussion of that policy that sparked a heated exchange during the Zoom meeting, during which 23 participants joined School Committee members.

One of those participants was a Great Barrington resident who sought to speak about emails he previously sent to district officials in which he claimed masking mandates for children are possibly unhealthy and a violation of human rights. The School Committee chairman, however, denied the resident the usual three minutes of allowed public comment time per person.

First, let’s get the facts straight: There is no evidence that masking is harmful to children physically or otherwise, according to doctors and public health experts such as those at the American Academy of Pediatrics. On the contrary, there is scientific evidence that school mask mandates can significantly mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus in classrooms. These facts should inform pandemic-related school policymaking, as it has in Great Barrington and in Massachusetts more broadly, since the delta variant has proven more likely to infect and sicken children than initial strains of COVID-19.

Beyond the facts on the ground of the COVID battle, however, this heated school board meeting also raises the issue of good governance under the pressure of pandemic.

It is understandable that school board members are hesitant to platform questionable or misleading talking points amid a public health crisis, and it is the school board chairman’s prerogative to allow or adjourn public comment. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a local governmental entity should automatically curb the usual opportunities for citizens to address their leaders and the public at an open meeting.

To be sure, letting attendees derail meetings with lengthy and baseless diatribes hamstrings local democracy more than it helps it. In this case, though, it would have amounted to three minutes. Denying that to the resident in this case, whatever the school board members’ perceptions of him, not only chafed against the principles of local democracy but was arguably unwise tactically, too. The resident — and those who might agree with him — are only more likely to be entrenched in their misguided theories that leaders from the local level up are conspiring to silence their righteous truth-telling on COVID. And now, instead of merely ceding three minutes of public comment time, it becomes a heated community issue, refracting the resident’s specious arguments far beyond the meeting.

Further, this situation demonstrates the ways that local officials could, instead of limiting public engagement at open meetings, arm themselves with the knowledge to dismantle in full view the sorts of half-truths, conspiracy theories and bad-faith arguments that have unfortunately infected many Americans’ perceptions of the COVID pandemic. The science is quite clear here, and the facts are readily available — from the AAP to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Journal of American Medicine Association.

Yes, it’s asking more than usual for local officials like School Committee members to familiarize themselves with some epidemiology 101 and public health science in order to help responsibly combat misinformation. These times are far from usual, however, and these topics factor considerably into policies being weighed by school boards across the country.

As the editorial board for the sort of institution that is enshrined in the First Amendment, we believe that the remedy to bad or erroneous speech is not governmental restriction but more, better speech — hopefully from speakers and leaders that can take the opportunity to better inform the public rather than preemptively shut them down and in turn risk compounding the issue among those who actually need convincing.

The Berkshire Hills School Committee had a choice to either let a misinformed constituent speak for three minutes or give him more attention by silencing him. While the board chose the latter, hopefully this will be a lesson in why the former would have been preferable in principle and practice.