"I see what's going on in Georgia, I see what's going on in Florida, I see what's going on in Texas," said Gov. Ned Lamont. "I see a lot of kids being sent home and quarantined, not having a chance to be in the classroom. And I'm here to listen to how we can best keep our schools open and kids in the classroom."
Gov. Ned Lamont at a roundtable Wednesday before protesters disrupted proceedings and Lamont and other officials abruptly left.

Gov. Ned Lamont and other state officials abruptly left a back-to-school roundtable on Wednesday after anti-mask protesters disrupted the speakers, cutting short the dialogue between school administrators, coaches and state officials.

With students set to begin their second school year amid a global pandemic, Lamont hosted the panel at Highland Elementary School in Cheshire. Panelists included Charlene Russell-Tucker, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Education, Dr. Deidre S. Gifford, acting commissioner of the Department of Public Health, Kate Dias, the president of Connecticut Education Association and Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, as well as superintendents from Waterbury and Cheshire public schools.

Panelists talked about the rules for vaccination and testing for staff and students, mitigation strategies to ensure athletes have a safe and successful season, and where people can get vaccinated if they still haven’t gotten their shots.

All the panelists wore masks. Anti-mask protesters began to heckle them near the end of the program, telling them to “speak up” because they said they couldn’t hear them. They asked Lamont “when we started living in Nazi Germany” before screaming at him as he left the school.

“This is a reflection of how we can’t have a civil dialogue,” Jeff Solan, the superintendent of Cheshire Public Schools and the panel’s emcee, said shortly before ending the discussion.

After the discussion, Rabinowitz said that while protestors have the right to show up at public events and board meetings, she wishes they wouldn’t do so in a way that also disrupts what others are trying to say.

“We were talking about social-emotional development, we’re talking about stability,” she said. “They have a perfect right to spread their thinking, but I just think it should be done in a way that is respectful of everybody.”

Rabinowitz added that she hasn’t heard any concerns from superintendents yet about the possibility of protestors showing up to schools.

“I think they are tending to come to board meetings or public meetings, where they can really register their discontent,” she said. “But I have not heard concern that they will show up at schools.”

“Both the academic and education communities know that masks in schools, especially for children who are unable to be vaccinated, help mitigate the effects of COVID-19,” Max Reiss, the governor’s spokesperson, said after Lamont was escorted from the school while protestors shouted at him. “These kinds of bullying tactics will not change the way we keep our kids safe.”

Reiss said it will be up to individual schools and districts to decide how to respond to vocal parents who do not want children wearing masks.

“We know there is a minority pocket of parents who believe that they’re right, but the science disagrees with them,” said Reiss.

At a press conference later in the day, Lamont said that none of the protesters were arrested. He said the roundtable’s purpose was to underscore the need to get children back in the classroom, safely.

“I was surprised to see young mothers with two 7-year olds, one in either hand, shouting vulgarities and being as rude as they were,” Lamont said. “We’re all sitting there, we’re trying to keep their kids safe, we’re trying to do it in the best way we can.”

Lamont’s tempered response was not echoed later in the day by the heads of the Democratic and Republican parties, who issued dueling statements about the mask protest.

Democratic State Chair Nancy DiNardo issued a statement at 3:30 p.m. calling on Republicans to denounce the anti-maskers.

“The Connecticut Republicans like to say they are past the extremism of the Trump era. But mask protests like today’s in Cheshire are happening across the state. Disagreeing on policy is part of our process. But this behavior, and similar protests at recent Board of Education meetings in Bristol and Fairfield, has no place in political discourse. Local officials are increasingly concerned for their safety. Today, I am calling on the Chairman of the Connecticut Republicans to exercise his leadership and to denounce this disruptive and hostile behavior,” DiNardo wrote.

GOP Chair Ben Proto shot back a short time later, accusing DiNardo of having “no proof” that the protesters were Republicans and laying the blame for the angry protests at the feet of the Lamont administration.

“Republicans understand the frustration of parents who have had the control of their children’s education wrenched away from them by a power-hungry Governor and his Democrat enablers in the legislature,” Proto wrote. “We call on the Governor to end his unilateral control of the government, relinquish his emergency powers, and listen to the majority of the citizens he represents.”

CT Mirror Reporter Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.

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Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.