Masks off: how US school boards became ‘perfect battlegrounds’ for vicious culture wars

Rina Gallien doesn’t consider herself political, but when the 41-year-old mother of four heard that parents who oppose mask mandates in schools were organizing to attend the 12 August meeting of the St Tammany Parish School Board in Slidell, Louisiana, she took time off work to attend.

“I didn’t want them to think that they are the only people who care about their kids,” said Gallien, who has three children still in school and strongly supports the mask mandate reinstated by the state’s governor amid soaring Covid-19 cases in early August. “I care about my kids too, and I want them to come home safe.”

Ancora, Gallien was not prepared for the experience of attending a school board meeting in St Tammany, a rural parish that is significantly whiter, richer and more conservative than nearby New Orleans. “I didn’t know it was going to be like that," lei disse. “When I pulled into the parking lot, it was a Trump rally.”

Dozens of parents, dressed in red to “demonstrate their anger”, according to the local paper, stood outside the school, holding signs with slogans such as “My Child, My Choice” and “Unmask Our Children”. Shouting matches broke out between the pro- and anti-mask camps as law enforcement officers attempted to keep the sides separate. One man told Gallien, who is Black, to “go back where you came from”.

The tense standoff in Slidell is just one of dozens that have unfolded at local school board meetings across the US in recent weeks as schools debate how to return to in-person instruction amid the resurgent threat of the Delta variant. A partire dal Anchorage, Alaska, per Fort Lauderdale, Florida, school board meetings have become the stage for the latest act in America’s culture wars over education, one with roots in the country’s deep racial and political divisions.

“School boards are a uniquely vulnerable spot in the culture war landscape, because they’re open to everyone and they’re not really prepared for it,” said Adam Laats, a Binghamton University professor who studies the history of education in the US. “You can go down to the meeting at 7.30pm on Thursday and yell at someone rather than just feeling adrift in a changing culture.”

Many meetings have been disrupted or even cancelled. In Bend, Oregon, proceedings had to be put on hold twice nel two weeks, as angry parents shouted at school board members and heckled a Spanish-language translator. The school board in Clarkstown, New York, cancelled its 12 August meeting when audience members refused to don masks. On the same day, the school board serving the affluent communities of the Palos Verdes peninsula near Los Angeles walked out quando 100 protesters affiliated with the anti-mask group Let Them Breathe also refused to wear face coverings; the board members reconvened the meeting from their homes, on Zoom.

Others have gone even farther. Nel Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a man wearing a T-shirt that read “Not Vaccinated” poured lighter fluid on a tray full of masks and set it on fire. After the school board approved a mask mandate for a community near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, su 9 agosto, one man stood and performed a Nazi salute, while another shouted, “You made Dr Mengele proud,” referencing the Nazi torturer and murderer.

One of the most chilling scenes occurred in Williamson county, Tennessee, just south of Nashville, where hundreds of parents protested in the parking lot outside the building where the school board on 10 August approved a temporary mask mandate for elementary schools. Video captured the crowd menacing a departing parent who had spoken in favor of masks.

“We know who you are. You can leave freely, but we will find you,” said one of the protesters.

“You will never be allowed in public again,” said another.

When the board reconvened for a special meeting on 16 agosto, law enforcement used handheld metal detectors to scan the audience, a first for a school board meeting in the district.

This level of engagement with and anger about the policies set by the country’s more than 13,000 local school boards is unprecedented, said Chip Slaven, the interim executive direction of the National School Boards Association. While school policies have long garnered intense local interest, this degree of sustained scrutiny of school boards across the country is new.

“Before this, a controversial school board meeting might be concern over hiring a superintendent, consolidating schools, or something related to the sports teams," Egli ha detto. “Those were the kinds of things where you might have a crowd.”

Adesso, tuttavia, “school board members are under attack in a number of ways,” said Slaven, including by angry parents at meetings, threatening trolls online and politicized recall elections. “There are even a couple governors making threats," Egli ha detto. Earlier this month, the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, threatened to withhold the salaries of school board members who defied his ban on mask mandates in schools, though he later acknowledged that he lacked the legal authority to do so. Su 11 agosto, the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, threatened to sue school districts or officials who did the same.

“After 9/11, did a governor intervene to stop a local official from taking steps to safeguard a public meeting?” Slaven asked. “We have 600,000 people that have died as a result of this pandemic, so you need to let local officials make these decisions that will protect people.”

School board members are typically unpaid community members who get involved to try to improve their local schools, Slaven noted. They are generally elected in non-partisan elections and oversee issues such as the budget and districts.

Many school boards have had to address crises in the past, such as recovering after a natural disaster or adopting new security practices after the attacks of September 11 2001, but most have never had to deal with anything approaching the complexity, difficulty and importance of figuring out how to educate 50 million public school students during a global pandemic. The ever-changing conditions of the pandemic have challenged the most well-funded and expert-laden government bodies, from the CDC to the IRS, let alone the part-time school board members who often hold other full-time jobs.

The high transmissibility of the Delta variant has complicated what many had hoped would be a return to relatively normal schooling. Amid rising case numbers, several states have reintroduced indoor mask mandates, e numerous recent polls show that a majority of parents support mask mandates in schools.

Most of the school board protests are being organized by parents who oppose such rules, but there has been some pro-mask activism and protest.

In Mishawka, Wisconsin, di 50 parents held a protest after the local school board voted to make masks optional. And in Fort Worth, Texas, pro-mask parents held a mock funeral procession to the home of the president of the school board, where they protested against her decision not to hold a vote on a mask mandate. (Nel one case this month, a few dozen parents and activists held a picket line in front of a Wisconsin high school in order to show support of their school board, which was being criticized over diversity issues. “We’re not here to be angry, but to be supportive,” said Matthew Sauer, a local pastor.)

Rather than being viewed as a simple precaution, tuttavia, the question of masks for children has become a partisan political issue, absorbed into a broader culture war between liberals and conservatives over everything from how schools should teach the history of slavery to the admissions policies of selective schools and whether transgender children should be allowed to play sports and go to the bathroom.

The anti-mask school board protests in August follow a wave of protests and heated debates about “critical race theory" (CRT) that consumed state legislatures and local school board meetings in May and June. (Critical race theory is a legal theory examining the ways racism is embedded in US law; it is not taught in secondary schools, but its name has been coopted by opponents of progressive education reforms and diversity training.) Anti-mask and anti-CRT messages frequently intermingle at the protests, and some groups, ad esempio Moms for Liberty, are organizing on both fronts.

Those anti-CRT protests are largely a continuation of previous disputes about how America’s history should be taught in public schools, from concerted efforts by the Ku Klux Klan to take over school boards in the 1920s to a 2018 decision by a Wisconsin school board to ban discussions of “white privilege” after parents complained about a Martin Luther King Day assembly, according to Laats.

“The history of school board politics is a great way to chart the career of all culture war issues,” said Laats. “School boards made perfect battlefields.”

Throughout the 20th century, local school board fights turned into national focal points. “National pundits could jump into local cases to make their own points,” said Laats. “Out-of-towners would flock to local school disputes, then small-circulation rightwing magazines would try to blow up the coverage.”

The school board fights of today follow a similar pattern, but thanks to the pandemic and the internet, they are occurring simultaneously at dozens of boards across the country, rather than just one.

National political leaders and conservative institutions have played an active role in stoking the surge in school board activism, with groups such as the Heritage Foundation and Manhattan Institute promoting the false idea that CRT is taught in public schools, and former Trump administration officials establishing new organizations to fund school board campaigns. Nel mese di giugno, the rightwing Christian group FRC Action (an offshoot of the Family Research Council, which is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center due to its extreme anti-LGBTQ+ positions) held a “boot camp” to train volunteers for “doing battle on the front lines” of school board politics.

“Every parent should show up to their school board meetings and raise hell if their kids are being taught Critical Race Theory or are forced to wear masks," twittato Charlie Kirk, the head of the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA, in May. (Kirk, 27, attended a school board meeting in Chandler, Arizona, in June and delivered a brief public comment against CRT, then posted the video on YouTube with the title “Charlie Kirk DESTROYS Critical Race Theory at School Board Meeting”, where it attracted just 40,000 views.)

To Laats, the conservative movement’s preoccupation with particular education issues speaks to its dislike of social, demographic and cultural change. As young people grow and adopt new ideas and attitudes, schools become a “collecting point for grievances”. “Right now it’s mask mandates and CRT," Egli ha detto. “In different decades it would be subversive socialism and Elvis Presley.

“Schools become the only thing that people can see to blame.”

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