American education writer and community organizer Margaret Wheatley once said, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”
In the Central Bucks School District, the third-largest in the state of Pennsylvania, the community has recently started doing just that. Parents and child advocates have begun showing up in droves at school board meetings, health department meetings, and community events to show just how much they care about the safety of our children as they return to school among the still-raging and ever-changing Covid-19 pandemic.
There is just one problem. The community can’t seem to agree on what constitutes a safe return.
On one side of the debate are those aligned with science, facts, and safety. These parents and community members want a full, in-person return to school, with appropriate mitigation and safety measures in place, such as universal masking.
On the other side are those who choose to disregard scientific consensus, ignore recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and insist that students return to school with no masking or mitigation in place. The group leading this charge is called “ReOpen Bucks,” which believes that “the excessive response to the COVID-19 pandemic is unwarranted and unlawful.” Above all else, they believe that mask mandates “propagate fear” and “tear down the social bonds” that keep them and their children together.
While both groups believe they are acting in the best interest of children, their methods leave little room for compromise. Last week, this disagreement came to a head in the blazing afternoon heat outside of the district’s central administration building. A group of concerned local medical professionals – all of whom have children in the district – spoke at a press conference before the school board’s vote on the district’s Covid-19 ‘Health and Safety Plan’. This plan outlines the Covid-19 mitigation efforts the district will have in place to keep students safe during the upcoming fall semester.
Tragically, the ‘Health and Safety Plan’ proposed by the School District defied the medical recommendations from the CDC and the AAP. The only precaution the plan includes is three feet of separation between students. It does not enforce any form of mask mandates, no form of contact tracing, and no robust reporting system. Essentially, it is no plan at all.
To try and bring the safety plan in line with the medical community, pediatric medical professionals spoke at the School District to share the science behind the many recommendations regarding a safe, in-person return to school this fall. Their prepared remarks presented quotes and statistics from the CDC and AAP, as well as state and national Departments of Education. Their pleas were backed by nearly 200 additional medical professionals from the county who signed a petition submitted to the board requesting appropriate safety measures be put in place. Together, they urged the board members to establish appropriate layers of protection and keep their children safe.
As the crowd gathered before the conference, representatives from the pro-science contingent tried to speak with anti-mask protestors to request civility and respect during the prepared speeches. However, these requests were met with anger and accusations. The anti-mask parents demanded to know how the pro-science group had gotten the media to cover their event. They wanted to know when they would get their chance to speak. They accused speakers of bribing the media for their stories to be heard.
Once the conference got underway, three medical professionals and a student-advocate spoke to the media and gathered a crowd. As the speakers began, the large crowd of anti-science, anti-mask proponents gathered front-and-center to disrupt the meeting. While the medical professionals spoke about CDC guidance, clinical studies, and the nature of the Delta variant, the anti-mask crowd screamed insults like ‘child abuser’, ‘murderer’, and ‘Hitler’. When the student-advocate, a young woman of color, spoke about her personal experience losing family members to Covid-19, they told her to ‘go home’ [to India].
During the press conference, anti-mask protestors crowded speakers at the podium, thrust signs in their faces, and yelled over their speeches. One even whispered sexually lewd and harassing comments of those trying to keep the peace and hinted strongly at her involvement in the January 6th Insurrection at the Nation’s Capital. All of this was done in the clear view of news cameras and police officers at the scene.
Later in the evening, inside the school board meeting, constituents from both sides spoke for over three hours of public comment. The first swath of comments, presented by those favoring a mask-free return, fixated on spreading misinformation – that “children do not get sick from COVID,” and that “masks are child abuse.” The twisted idea that mask mandates are akin to child abuse has been echoed by conspiracy theorists like QAnon and even Tucker Carlson on Fox News.
Those advocating for a Healthy and Safety Plan attempted to counter the misinformation by citing articles, data, and guidelines to back their request for simple, universal masking – especially among elementary students who remain ineligible for vaccination. Predictably, these facts and figures fell on eft ears.
In the end, the board voted 5-3 to pass a Health and Safety Plan that included no mandates for masking, no contact tracing, and no reporting of cases.
While the District has promised to keep the Health and Safety Plan on the agenda during upcoming school board meetings, the plan itself does not provide guidelines for how or when the plan can and should be revised. The county health department has stopped tracking and reporting Covid-19 cases and will not require schools to conduct their own tracing or reporting. Without this accurate and timely data, the board will be unable to make necessary changes moving forward. Thus, many in the community have been left in a lurch, unable to ensure their kids will be safe, unwilling to risk serious illness or death, but needing their children in school.
The home-grown cadre of passionate moms who came together to speak for the safety of their kids has turned into a grassroots movement here in Bucks County. Parents now find themselves on the political “front-lines” and subject to the anger and vitriol of their opponents. The speakers from the press conference have been subject to personal attacks online and in the workplace.
In attempts to discredit these speakers and their supporters, those actively working for a mask-free return to school have cost the county countless amounts of time and money in ‘Right to Know’ requests. As more people have been threatened with harassment and reports to their employers, many in the community remain afraid to speak out.
Now, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and the start of school looms less than a month away, parents are left with a terrible choice between their children’s safety and the quality of their education. A thoughtful “Health and Safety” plan would have balanced both, but sadly, there was no room for debate when it mattered most. Many are feeling that their school board and public health officials have failed them, and more importantly, failed their children.
Sadly, this story is not unique to the Central Bucks School District. This coordinated anti-science refrain is being repeated across the country in many small towns as far-right extremism tries to gain footholds in local politics. It is a ground-level movement, but it has been alarmingly successful. Despite their sometimes-glossy public facade, and blandly positive names – like “Reopen Bucks” or “Keeping Kids in School” – they espouse a virulent disregard of science, medicine, inclusion, and people’s lived experiences other than their own.