This week the New York State Department of Public Health and Health Planning Council approved renewing the emergency regulation on masking in schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection.
This will, no doubt, inflame emotions and reignite the dispute among parent groups regarding the efficacy of this measure.
If expressing differences was purely a matter of respectful, even fiery, debate in the service of illuminating two sides of an argument that would be one thing; however, civility has become a relic of the past in America and school board meetings are no exception.
Battle lines have been drawn regarding COVID prevention mandates as well as academic instruction, especially when it comes to students developing cultural literacy and respect for diversity.
Expressing difference in America has reached a level of depravity that there may be no turning back from, at least not in the foreseeable future. Case in point: Florida schoolboard member Jennifer Jenkins.
Jenkins, a speech pathologist, has become a target for supporting mask mandates. In addition to anti-masker protesters demonstrating outside of her home wielding weapons, one of her more spineless adversaries made a false report, anonymously, to Florida’s Department of Children and Families stating that Jenkins physically abused her 5-year-old daughter.
Child protective service investigators then knocked on Jenkins’ door, interrogated her about how she disciplines her daughter and looked underneath the child’s clothing for burn marks.
In an essay that appeared in the Oct. 20 Washington Post, Jenkins wrote that although she anticipated opposition for supporting masking she “did not expect to be called a Nazi and a pedophile and to be subjected to months of threats, harassment and intimidation.”
In fact, she stated, one anti-masker shouted at her daughter outside their home: “Be careful, your mommy hurts little kids.” Jenkins explained that the menacing is infused with violent overtones and “has spilled out of the meetings and into the private lives of public servants.”
On Long Island, where there are 124 public school districts, threatening behavior at school board meetings has led to police patrols and some districts opting for virtual rather than in-person meetings.
Virtual meetings are convenient and served their purpose during the heart of the pandemic when uncertainty and fear regarding infection were riding high. However, social distancing to keep belligerent parents separated from one another is not a helpful strategy for managing conflict.
It sets yet another bad example for our children, further alienating families from one another and reinforcing animosity.
Wherever indicated, school districts must commit to a long-term plan for developing good-faith coalitions of parents and school personnel organized to take steps to change the tenor of school board meetings and dial down the toxicity. In some districts, effective PTA’s can lead the way. In others, something new may need to emerge.
We are all painfully aware that the US Congress is barely capable of even a modicum of collegiality and mutual respect. Rather than bring our representatives together, the violence displayed at the Jan. 6 insurgency has only led to more profound distancing. It is up to parents and other adults who care about kids to flip the script in their local communities, in order to slow the trickle-down toxicity that is incrementally poisoning our children.
The good news is that kids are adaptable. They are resilient and can easily understand that masking is a short-term step and a life lesson in looking out for one another and being a good neighbor.
Beyond the pandemic, schools ought to be a place where kids develop academic proficiency and learn how to better understand and celebrate diversity in ways that diminish no child and lift them all.