Henrico teacher defends mask demonstration at school board meeting

Teacher: 'I prefer demonstration to discussion'
Posted at 6:40 PM, Oct 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-23 18:41:29-04

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- The science teacher who was escorted out of the Henrico School Board meeting on Tuesday said he wasn’t aiming to be disrespectful when he took off his mask.

Brent Halstead, a Hermitage High School teacher, spoke out during public comment period against plans to begin phasing elementary students back into the classroom.

“I prefer demonstration to discussion,” he told the Board before walking up onto the stage where the members were seated.

Halstead used a tape measure to stand six feet away and took off his mask while holding a bag of goldfish crackers and a Diet Coke.

“What I really wanted to convey wasn’t any kind of sense of disrespect. It was just what the expectation was for us every day for 20 minutes with our students. That’s the expectation is we won’t wear a mask and they won’t either for six feet,” he told CBS 6 via Zoom on Friday. “I didn’t want to accuse or blame or call anybody out. But, that’s the expectation and that’s what I figured I’d demonstrate.”

Henrico Sheriff’s deputies then led Halstead off the stage and escorted him out of the building.

“I was surprised how many people escorted me out,” Halstead explained. “I don't regret it at all. I was only doing what they ask and expect us to do.”

The Henrico County School Board voted 4-1 to expand optional in-person learning for younger elementary students on November 30.

Middle and high school students will have the option to go back to in-person learning starting in February. A virtual learning option will remain in place for all students.

Tara Courtland, a mother of a Henrico fifth grader, was persuaded by Halstead’s demonstration.

“The idea of somebody sitting that close to my child eating was so viscerally terrifying that pretty much sealed it for me,” she explained. “It’s a different world now. The idea of that is terrifying and that was the moment that I was sure I wasn’t sending my child back.”

Courtland said she will reconsider sending her children back after the holidays.

“Sending them back and pulling them out for Thanksgiving — then sending them back and then pulling them out for the Winter holidays seems like a recipe for disaster,” Courtland stated.

Halstead said he hasn't been disciplined for the demonstration. A video of the encounter has been watched more than 42,000 on Twitter.

Dr. Danny Avula, health director for the Henrico-Richmond Health District, serves on the health committee for Henrico County Public Schools.

The committee looked at transmission rates and other COVID-19 data from other localities that have reopened their schools to make their recommendation to the Board.

"Yes, you will see COVID in schools, but COVID transmission in schools is not driving community transmission," Avula explained. "

Avula has said he would send his children to in-person instruction. But, he warned that each individual family should make that decision based on certain risk factors.

“I think for families who are weighing the risk of, ‘is my child potentially going to get covid and bring it home to me?’ Those are real considerations if you fall in a high risk category,” Avula stated.

Adults of any age with certain underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the CDC. The greatest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 is among those aged 85 or older.

Avula believed in-person instruction will best help low income families.

“My heart breaks particularly for low in come families some who are struggling to figure out virtual instruction at home either because of technology challenges or the space they have ability,” he said. “When you’re a Kindergartener or a second grader, it’s hard to be fully engaged in the computer if you dont have an adult helping you.”



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