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What started as a Facebook group meant to connect parents trying to keep facemasks in Brevard County Schools has since grown into a new political organization aimed at fighting for far more classroom changes.
Families for Safe Schools began in April on Facebook as a group called “Mandate Masks in Brevard County schools.” It gained momentum as a counterpart to Moms for Liberty, a vocal conservative parent group with a prominent presence at School Board meetings.
School Board meetings, once sparsely attended events, have become a new front in America's culture wars over the last year as the nation struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic and growing demands for social justice, inclusiveness and greater racial accountability. Moms for Liberty started out as a local organization pushing back against what they viewed as progressive school policies that were undermining parental rights. It now has chapters across the county.
The parents who formed Families for Safe Schools have essentially taken a page from the conservatives' playbook to fight back for what they believe.
FFSS members met each other at school board meetings as individual parents who showed up over the summer to support a mask mandate for schools as the delta variant of the novel coronavirus was surging through classrooms, infecting thousands of children and school staff.
As they talked to each other, the parents found they had other common interests and concerns. They shared worries about the rights of LGBTQ students and gun safety. They feared that the quest to ban “critical race theory” from classrooms could prevent their children from learning the full history of the United States.
Their main rallying cry was that School Board meetings have been hijacked by a loud minority using their voices to shape school policies while representing just a fraction of parents.
“If you were to judge strictly on who spoke at the meetings, you would have thought that 80% of the county was rabidly anti-mask,” said Michelle Barrineau, a Families for Safe Schools vice president and the mother of a BPS student. “And that was the representation that the board was seeing from the county, and it was just purely false.”
The group now boasts about 1,600 members on Facebook. Leaders said the group opposes conservative education talking points, but are quick to point out that their members represent all political persuasions, including Republicans and people not registered with any party.
According to the mission statement on its website, Families for Safe Schools "supports public education and aims to protect it from politically-motivated attacks."
"We believe that K-12 public schools and our elected officials have a responsibility to provide a safe and inclusive learning environment to all children," the mission statement reads.
The parents came together after witnessing the effects of COVID-19 on schools. All showed up to board meetings to speak in favor of mask mandates.
Jabari Hosey, president of the group, attended his first school board meeting over the summer to speak against the district removing masks. Shortly after masks were removed, his two sons caught COVID-19 at summer school and were sick for a week.
“I just couldn't believe exactly what everyone knew would happen, happened,” Hosey said. “And what was infuriating about that was to you know, not to beat a dead horse, but it was the fact that a very small group seemed to have some sort of influence on change in policy for no reason, you know, no scientific backing.”
Others have had to make tough choices on their children’s schooling, Tamsin Wright, a former BPS teacher and a mother of two students, felt compelled to keep her children in virtual schooling for the 2019-20 school year. Wright is immunocompromised due to lupus.
“We had friends who have died, young parents, who have died, who were not unhealthy to their knowledge, and sort of seeing that and knowing that, I had to make that decision to save myself,” Wright said. “But that my children were (making sacrifices) to do that, that's like mom guilt times 100,000.”
Wright’s daughter took online classes for first grade, and missed out on social interactions because of it, Wright said.
Wright and other parents in the group have seen learning deficits in their children due to the interruptions of COVID-19.
Going forward, Families for Safe Schools will push for the district to address COVID-19 learning gaps, especially those in student populations that were underperforming, such as Black students, students in low income households and students with disabilities.
They also worry that increasing focus on critical race theory in schools will dampen valuable discussions in classrooms, negatively impacting education for their own children.
“You don't have a right to protect your children from things that you don't like,” Barrineau said. “You have a right to talk about them and explain your values … You don't have a right to take books out of the library that you don't want your kids to read. Don’t take books out of the library so that my kid can’t read them.”
Parents around the country have called on schools to remove books about historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges or books about LGBTQ people.
Members of the group said that it has sometimes been difficult to get parents to attend School Board meetings.
The atmosphere at protests outside the meetings and inside the board room has often been fraught, with tense arguments breaking out. Some parents have not wanted to attend due to risk of catching COVID-19 from the dozens of people who often fill the room. Jabari said he hopes people will step up to participate however they can.
“It's going to take people who have been comfortably, not attending school board meetings and ignoring all this and not wanting to get involved in politics to actually step up,” Jabari said. “And even if it's just attending a school board meeting, or writing a letter, you know, send an email to the board.”
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Brevard County parents challenge Moms for Liberty with pro-mask group