Pembroke residents, sometimes testy, shared thoughts about their high school and its mask mandate

  • Pembroke Academy as seen on April, 2, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor columnist
Published: 10/6/2021 7:04:10 PM

Stacey Messina moved from Massachusetts to New Hampshire last month to feel the spirit famously promoted on Granite State license plates.

“Yes, that was why we held them out of school in Massachusetts,” Messina said outside Pembroke Academy during Tuesday night’s School Board meeting. “We moved here because of government overreach down there. I thought this was the ‘Live Free or Die’ state.”

That was one side of a sometimes snippy meeting. A meeting like the ones that are playing out all across the state as one side or the other cites statistics and data to back up their points. To Messina, the “free” in our state motto means letting parents choose if their kids wear masks or not. A mandate – as is in place at Pembroke Academy and now all schools under the SAU53 umbrella – strips that freedom away.

Other parents thought wearing masks was a logical safety measure. Requiring masks keeps everyone safer, especially as the Delta variant of COVID keeps speading, they said. Pembroke Academy had 15 active cases, the school reported this week. At one point, someone else who opposed the mask mandate relented, saying it was worthwhile to follow the rule. Anything to get the kids back in school. Even if you don’t like the policy.

Outside the meeting, Marc Dumont continued to collect signatures for a petition he says will lead to a public vote on the matter. Since the board voted 3-0 last month to require masks, it hasn’t reconsidered the issue despite all the opinions flying around.

Inside the meeting, School Board Chairman Andy Camidge allowed those opinions to fly, unmasked this time. Last month, when a handful of residents attended unmasked, they stayed seated after Camidge asked them to wear masks. In response, Camidge promptly adjourned the meeting.

On Tuesday, a sign was posted with arrows near the entrance. Parents wearing masks to the left, no masks to the right.

It appeared evenly split. Out of the 40 or so people in attendance, about 20 wore masks, 20 did not.

That’s where we stand. The kids wear masks, as is required. That makes a lot of people mad, which led to some theatrics Tuesday. And subtle fireworks.

Dumont recited the definition of “arbitrary,” saying it meant “a random choice or personal whim rather than any reasonable system.”

That’s what this mandate policy is, Dumont said. A whim. For those who want an option, he claimed, wear the N95 mask, for a tighter seal and a filtering system. Problem solved, he maintained.

“I don’t appreciate Mr. Dumont’s comments,” Laura Dwyer said when she had the microphone. “If I wanted to grandstand, I would show up with a carton of cigarettes and hand (masks) out too. You wouldn’t, because the health risks of secondhand smoke affects everybody.”

“I promised myself I would stay calm,” Dwyer added before sitting down, “and I’m trying really hard to do that.”

Not an easy task with passions on both sides running hot.

Karyn Ruesing had some of her own theatrics in mind. She had thought about attending the meeting with no shoes and an unlit cigarette. She wanted to show that logic should dictate rules and behavior. You need shoes. You can’t smoke. Wear a mask. It helps.

She had no cigarette. She wore shoes.

Instead, she walked up to the microphone, gestured down to her feet and said, “Do I have to wear shoes in here? In the building?”

Messina, the Massachusetts transplant from Marblehead, didn’t laugh. “Give me a break,” she said, in a voice just loud enough to be heard by most, including Ruesing.

She turned from the microphone and fired, “I will give you a break.”

She said everyone has already received what was most important to them: the return to school five days a week. Wasn’t that worth some sort of compromise? Do whatever we must do to get the kids back in school. In the building. In these classrooms.

She said her two kids are thriving these days. Socialization. Clubs. Field hockey.

“A lot of people who were upset about the mandate were complaining last year that they wanted in-school five days a week,” Ruesing said later by phone. “Yes, masks suck, but we got what we wanted and now we have to wear them.”

Dumont and the more than 100 people who have signed his petition want to change that. Dumont says 50 signatures are needed to present to the School Board, which, he says, would force the board to schedule a special meeting. There, residents would vote to decide if the mandate should remain.

And while some in the legal community have said the petition is not a channel that can be used to create a new vote and override the board, Dumont is confident he knows the facts.

“Let’s see if they follow and grant us a special meeting,” he said before the meeting, as he gathered signatures outside. “If they don’t, they’re going against democracy and they’re breaking the law.”

Occasionally, the meeting got testy. Told the time limit for public comments had expired, a resident called Camidge and the board cowards for not allowing him to speak.

Messina cited Martin Luther King Jr., explaining that “one has the ability to disobey unjust laws. We shouldn’t be putting masks on children. This is for doctors. This is for hospitals. This is not for a school setting.”

Added Bryan Morse, “All we’re asking is, let us decide what’s best for our children.”

That’s where we stand. With enough signatures, residents think they can vote to change the policy, from a mandate to an option. That remains to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that COVID hasn’t gone away, and neither has this mask thing. Not by a long shot.

“My name is Stacey Messina,” said the new Pembroke resident, who once loved our state motto, “and you will see me again regarding these issues.”


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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