Grady Knox stepped to the lectern at the Rutherford County Board of Education meeting Tuesday to share what was at stake with a mask mandate the board was considering that evening.
Knox, a junior at Central Magnet High School in Murfreesboro, Tenn., told the board his grandmother, a former teacher in the district, had died of COVID-19 last year because of lax mask rules — and was immediately jeered.
An unmasked woman seen over Knox’s shoulder smirks and shakes her head at his comment as she holds a sign that reads ‘let our kids smile.’ Another person is heard saying “no” as attendees murmur, interrupting Knox. Another voice is heard shouting “shut up,” though it’s unclear whether it was directed at Knox or his hecklers.
“Hey guys,” Coy Young, the outgoing Rutherford County School Board chairman says, cutting in. “We’re here to act professional.”
Though Young was able to restore order and allow Knox to finish his two minute of speaking time, the crude reaction to the teen’s story of personal loss drew national headlines. The buzz over the school board meeting underscores how fights over school mask rules and other COVID-19 precautions have grown increasingly ugly, even as the delta variant triggers new rounds of quarantines and school closures — and states such as Tennessee see record levels of pediatric COVID cases.
In extreme cases, adults angry over health restrictions have physically assaulted teachers, ripped masks off, and confronted a principal with zip ties. Despite some of the more high-profile showdowns over health restrictions, an August poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of parents approve of mask rules: 63% of parents polled said their child’s school should require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks. The same poll found that attitudes were sharply divided along partisan lines, where 88% of parents who identify as Democrats approved of mask rules, while 69% of parents who identify as Republicans opposed them.
Knox could not be reached for comment during the school day Friday, but previously said he had felt a disconnect in the moment as he tried to reconcile the fact that adults were heckling him after saying his grandmother had died.
“I couldn’t understand why people would react like that to a statement I made that was so personal,” Knox said in a Thursday interview with CNN’s “New Day.”
Knox appeared on CNN alongside his friend Will Severn who, like the majority of the students who spoke at Tuesday’s board meeting, supported a mask requirement so that students and staff could be protected and schools could remain open.
“I try to the utmost degree to have respect for the other side’s opinions, but that behavior shocked me,” Severn told Fox Nashville the day after the board meeting. He added, “I think the fact that we were the adults in the room, for the most part, spoke volumes about the debate that was had yesterday.”
Most of those opposing the mandates at Tuesday’s meeting were adults, several of whom repeated false or misleading claims about vaccines being “experimental” and masks harming children by causing them to inhale their own germs.
Meanwhile, a stream of students advocated for mask mandates during the three-hour-plus meeting as they spoke of rising caseloads in the county and disruptions to their education caused by being forced to quarantine or miss school due to exposure to an infected classmate.
“I’m worried about my family. If I get COVID, I’m going to bring it to my family,” Knox said before he was cut off by jeering adults. He explained that he is close to his grandparents, whom he said were at high risk for complications.
Young, the outgoing school board chairman, said during a Thursday meeting that Knox deserved an apology for how he was treated.
“He was trying to tell us a story about his grandmother he lost. If you haven’t heard it already, it was pretty devastating what happened to that young man at this meeting,” Young said, according to CBS affiliate WKRN. “It’s been all over the news and I really regret the young man was treated the way he was. We owe him an apology.”
At the Thursday night meeting, the school board passed a temporary, month-long mandate from Sept. 13 to Oct. 14, though an executive order by Tenn. Gov. Bill Lee (R) allows families to opt out; the order has been repeatedly challenged in court.
Knox told CNN that despite the negative experience of being heckled, his detractors ultimately boosted him to a higher platform than he would have otherwise enjoyed.
“I just hope that they see they’ve given me this chance now to speak in front of the entire nation and tell how I think masks are something really essential for schools to stay open,” he said.