Tension these days is eveywhere; just ask Pembroke

  • A sign marks the New Hampshire School Administrative Unit #53 offices in Pembroke on April, 2, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/23/2021 5:38:15 PM

A snapshot of America unfolded at Pembroke Academy this week.

There, outside the school cafeteria, three residents sat at a table, seeking signatures for their petition, pushing the narrative that wearing masks in the Pembroke School District should be optional. Not mandatory, as it is today.

Elsewhere, School Board Member April Villani, in favor of changing the policy to optional mask-wearing, abruptly resigned, reading a prepared statement and shocking even her closest allies, then walking out.

Soon, in a matter of minutes, the crowd – more than two-dozen strong – followed her through the door after a handful of residents refused to comply with School Board Chair Andy Camidge’s demand that they wear masks inside the building, per school policy.

The meeting lasted roughly eight minutes, but that was enough time to draw familiar battle lines that, in fact, had been put into place months ago. All across the USA, and certainly in the Granite State.

A postponed meeting at Merrimack Valley High School, also this week because attendees refused to cover up their mouths and noses. An arrest last spring at Timberlane Regional School for unruly behavior after a Sunday school teacher entered a public meeting without a mask.

In Pembroke, just two weeks after the School Board reversed an earlier decision for optional masking, some are worried that Camidge and his mandate allies – Gene Gauss and Amy Manzelli – are unwilling to hear dissent.

Prior to the latest meeting, Camidge sent a message to district parents, explaining that one of the board’s two monthly meetings, both open to the public, would now be called a “Work Session.” Tuesday’s meeting would have a public comment on the mask issue, but there was no plan by the board to reconsider its decision.

“Going forward, ‘work session’ meetings will not include a public comment section,” Camidge wrote.

“What do they have in store for us next?” asked Joseph Tyler, whose younger son is a junior at Pembroke Academy. “Without listening to at least half the other people, you are creating ill will in the community and you’re not bringing people together. You should have at least listened to them.”

Added fellow resident and outspoken critic Tim Gerardi, “At the time, I could not believe that it had come to this and I could not believe that the School Board adjourned the meeting completely rather than hold the meeting and get comments from those with masks. I’m really embarrassed we had the leadership in place that has divided the town more than anyone could have imagined.”

Making masks optional could be divisive too, like the school board did in Weare, only to have a cluster of teachers come down with the virus forcing top administrators to scramble to fill in and teach their classes.

Gerardi said his wife, who drops off their kids at school, saw harmony when masks were optional, before the school board reversed its decision last month, citing data that suggested the COVID variant was still very much in play.

“There was no stark division when she dropped them off,” Gerardi said.

Ironically, both Tyler and Gerardi wore masks this week. Tyler said he sat up front so the board could see his strategy, one of compliance, of calmness and, in his mind, of compromise. He and Gerardi have created a one-two punch, heavy on what they see as logic, light on the punching.

“If I am going to have my kids in school, they’re following a set of rules that the school has set,” Gerardi said. “I find it incumbent on myself, and my wife feels the same way, that setting an example for the children is important. I also want to speak in an environment that even though I disagree vehemently with the board’s rules, I want them to hear the words I say and focus on them, rather than the fact that I might not be wearing a mask.”

Marc Dumont is also heavy on the option clause. The petition outside the cafeteria was his idea. He promoted the meeting and its importance, posting on Facebook, “I will be collecting signatures from registered voters to call a Special Meeting, to allow voters to replace the mask mandate with Parental/Personal Choice within our School District.”

Camidge could not be reached for comment, via phone or email. It’s clear, however, that he knew that a petition to make masks optional would circulate that night.

He certainly had no idea, however, what Villani had planned. She and Ann Bond had opposed the mandate voted on earlier this month.

Villani was unavailable for comment. Bond, her close, like-minded friend, said she had no idea that Villani was leaving. She doubted that her colleague resigned over the mask issue.

“It was a shocker,” Bond told me. “She cited personal reasons, and if (infighting) was a situation there, she would have put it in her speech.”

Finished with her prepared statements, Villani walked out. Camidge asked parents without masks – and that number was small, four or five people – to put one on. That went nowhere.

Camidge adjourned the meeting. Everyone went home early.

Then, in the days that followed, the elephant in the room appeared. The political aspect. The black-and-white assumption that mask wearers are liberal, supporters of the optional policies are conservative, and that one side is right, the other wrong.

Tyler wanted this part included, believing it shows sound reasoning, that social distancing and freedom of choice will equal safety for the town’s children.

Masks smell of Mussolini.

Gerardi was measured with his remarks.

“Masks are not the issue,” Gerardi said. “That is only the current issue at hand. The real issue is that we are trying to get something overturned, the right of parents to have the choice and to decide what’s best for their own children.”

Tyler chose to cross that line into politics. He believed his words superseded any flack he might face for welcoming the elephant into the picture.

That’s part of the American snapshot as well.

“During the last presidential administration, there was a lot of resistance from the left,”  Tyler said. “Now that they have power, and the school board is an example of this, they’re trying to silence us into submission.” 

“What do they have in store next, without listening to at least half of the other people?”

Perhaps the next scheduled meeting on Oct. 5 will give a clearer p icture as to the number of people who choose to sign that petition circulating around town. 

Editor’s note: This article has been changed to reflect that public comment was allowed at Tuesday’s meeting  but not future work sessions. 

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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