As COVID-19 rates among children soar and schools go back in session, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are calling for indoor masking for all students. But not all parents want to heed this guidance, and now school board meetings are becoming the site of what one Austin, Texas, superintendent called “the mask wars.”
Parents opposed to these public health mandates have shouted down doctors and school officials, refused to wear masks themselves, and promoted inaccurate medical information about the COVID vaccines. A number of school board meetings have been canceled outright, leaving critical questions unanswered about how to keep students, staff, and faculty safe.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, a meeting was cut short because parents refused to social distance. Others have refused to wear masks during meetings, as in Bristol, Connecticut; Spokane Valley, Washington; and Annapolis, Maryland. In Holmen, Wisconsin, police removed several parents from a meeting over their refusal to wear masks. And on Monday, a Fredericksburg, Virginia, school board meeting concluded after 13 minutes because the crowd wouldn’t settle down.
In Richford, Vermont, parents shouted down a pediatrician who called in via Zoom to answer questions about COVID-19’s impact on children. In Birmingham, Michigan, a parent was ejected from a school board meeting after giving the Nazi salute and saying “Heil Hitler” after another parent made a statement in support of mask mandates.
Even the mom from Disney’s Good Luck Charlie, actor Leigh-Allyn Baker, is getting in on the melee, claiming at a school board meeting in Williamson County, Tennessee, that masks deprive children’s brains of oxygen and presenting the board with copies of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the Bible. (Coincidentally, Baker’s character on the show was a nurse.) At that same meeting, parents chased out health-care professionals and school board officials, chanting, “We know who you are! You can leave freely, but we will find you!”
Other parents have pleaded with their peers to listen to public health guidance and protect their communities. Justin Kanew, another Williamson County parent, went viral for an impassioned speech in favor of mask mandates. “[My daughter] went to school and was one of just a few kids in her class wearing a mask, which made her ask why she had to. My answer was because we want to take care of other people,” he said. “She’s five years old but she understood that concept, and it’s disappointing that more adults around here can’t seem to grasp it.”
A more chaotic demonstration of support for masks came from Dripping Springs, Texas, parent James Akers: On Monday, Akers stripped down to his underwear during a school board meeting to demonstrate the importance of following sometimes inconvenient rules to help others. “It’s simple protocol, people,” Akers said at the meeting after removing his pants. “We follow certain rules for a very good reason.”
Tensions are following students to school too. In Colorado, one school put police outside the building for the first few days after reopening in response to parents protesting masks. For the parents, the consequences of such protests may be serious: Parents who disrupted a Salt Lake City, Utah, school board meeting in May are facing criminal charges.
Conflict over mask mandates largely breaks down along partisan lines. A recent Axios-Ipsos poll found that the majority of Americans support mask mandates in schools, making the protesters an especially vocal minority; over 90% of Democrats support mask mandates, but only 44% of Republicans do. Replicating that partisan tension, state governments and school officials are in disagreement about how to approach mask mandates, particularly in states with Republican governors. In Texas and Florida, governors have sought to block school-wide mask mandates, while school officials have implemented them regardless.
Beyond the mask wars, these dramatic school board meetings also serve as a battleground in the culture wars, Binghamton University professor Adam Laats, who studies the history of education in the U.S., told The Guardian. The rise of mask protests at school board meetings coincides with the new conservative tactic of raising concern over “critical race theory” (CRT) in schools and encouraging parents to attend school board meetings to complain about it.
“The history of school board politics is a great way to chart the career of all culture war issues,” Laats told the newspaper. “Right now it’s mask mandates and CRT. In different decades it would be subversive socialism and Elvis Presley.”
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