Since my daughter was very small, she’s been asking to come along with me to protests and local political events. Now that’s she’s 12, she’s become even more aware and engaged with social justice. So, when I heard that local medical professionals would be giving a press conference about our school district’s health and safety plan, I was excited to bring her along.
I would later regret that decision.
The press conference was to be held before Central Bucks School District’s school board meeting to vote on the 2021/2022 Health and Safety plan. The proposed plan contained no COVID safety mitigation… no masks, no contact tracing, not even a requirement for parents to tell the school if their child has COVID. Considering that CBSD has over 18,000 students, this decision to not follow federal safety guidance could have major health repercussions for our community.
A petition signed by 173 doctors in support of following the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for mask wearing was to be presented by the speakers.
We arrived early to the press conference to help set up. As the doctors shared notes and prepared their speeches, I looked over at my daughter. Her eyes were wide as she edged closer to hear what the doctors were saying. My heart fluttered at the opportunity to show her how science could help inform policy.
Joyful music filtered through the crowd as the first speaker stepped towards the microphone. But, the moment she began speaking, the mood changed abruptly. A large crowd of people carrying “no masks” signs pushed towards the front. Several made their way behind the speaker and held their signs directly over her head. The first speaker, a pediatrician, was visibly shaken as the anti-mask crowd yelled and hissed while she spoke.
Things continued to get more heated as the press conference continued. When a doctor, a woman of color, spoke, someone in the crowd yelled, “illegal alien!” and “Nazi!” When a Black man tried to keep the anti-mask folks from crowding the speakers, a woman cried, “I can’t breathe” in a mocking tone. A local NPR affiliate reported that later, that same woman swiped at the man when he held the microphone for one of the speakers.
Unfortunately, children were not spared from the anti-mask group’s harassment. When a 16 year old girl spoke about losing her family in India to COVID, someone in the crowd yelled, “I don’t give a shit!” Even my 12-year-old daughter was bullied. A woman shoved her phone in my daughter’s face and demanded that she say that no children have died of COVID.
As the mood grew more intense, my daughter, who is known for her fierceness, nestled close to me. I held my arm tightly around her for protection.
After the press conference concluded, we gathered with other folks who were there to support COVID safety. We compared notes on our experiences during the press conference. One of the speakers told us that, while she was speaking, an anti-mask woman whispered sexual innuendos and personal insults in her ear to distract her. Several students told us that they had been shoved, cursed at, and threatened with more violence. Many other folks related how anti-mask people had crowded their space and pushed cameras in front of them.
With all of these traumatic experiences weighing on us, we headed into the building for the school board meeting that was set to follow the press conference. Despite the heavy mood of the adults, my daughter remained cheerful.
“The school board will HAVE to make us wear masks now,” she said. “Why would they listen to all those loud angry people instead of the doctors?”
Unfortunately, the school board DID listen to the angry crowd. Despite the fact that the CDC recently named Bucks County as one of the “communities of substantial transmission,” despite the fact that The AAP suggests that all students over the age of 2 should wear masks in school, despite the fact that the majority of our local doctors agree with these federal guidelines, our school board voted against any Covid mitigation for the upcoming school year.
As disturbing as this school board experience was, it was unfortunately not an isolated incident. School districts across the country are experiencing this same bullying and disregard for science. Our community is particularly vulnerable to these types of incidents. Because we live in a swing county in a swing state, national groups have identified us as a key battleground in the fight to win over the country’s school boards and inject anti-science, anti-equality policies into our districts. Right-wing PACs have dumped large amounts of money into electing these anti-mask folks to school board positions.
So, now what? How can I send my children to school knowing that there will be no COVID safety laws in place? How can I protect my community from being taken over by folks with no regard for science or civility?
I don’t have the answers. But my daughter does! She has already been speaking with her friends about creating a club for middle school students to fight for science and equity based policies and curriculum. And I couldn’t be more proud.