It’s that time of year when parents and children are preparing for the return to the classroom, many for the first time in more than a year. In the process, school districts all over America are deciding whether to require the wearing of masks. It can be an emotional issue, leading to verbal clashes at school board meetings.

Recently, the Virginia Beach School Board was confronted by angry parents as the board discussed the mask issue. On multiple occasions, the board chair lost control of the meeting and ordered a recess. In the example below, a parent has just veered from the mask policy to attack a television station’s coverage of the controversy. As you watch, ask yourself whether the school board chair could have done anything to ease the tension besides recessing the meeting?

So, how should a school board chair, or anyone presiding over a public meeting, handle emotional outbursts? Generally, we believe it’s best to let a speaker vent for a short period because interrupting only raises the tension. In this case, the board chair tried to cut the parent off quickly and called for the next speaker. Predictably, that angered the parent, who became even more emotional, leading to a temporary shutdown of the meeting. The chair could have let her vent a while longer, in the expectation she would return to the mask topic. Instead, the chair’s multiple interruptions allowed the tension to grow and she then waited too long to call for a recess. The lesson: give some space for speakers to vent, but take decisive action if there are signs the venting is taking over the meeting.