Madison Cawthorn stokes another anti-mask school board spectacle

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If it weren’t for the day of the week and the television emitting the voices of school board members, you could easily mistake Tuesday’s Johnston County school board meeting for a tailgate.

Folks showed up to the parking lot of the Johnston County Schools office with lawn chairs and children in tow. A group set up a tent to sell hot dogs and water, which a neighbor grilled across the street. A sign referencing QAnon sat at the feet of one attendee. Others wore shirts that said “I don’t co-parent with the government.”

It was hard to tell who was a concerned parent with children in the school system, who was a pissed off neighbor, and who had shown up because Congressman Madison Cawthorn was there to make a media spectacle.

Cawthorn’s presence was novel; the anti-maskers were not. Across the country, school boards are hearing from folks in and out of their districts, with and without kids in the system, about how masks are “muzzling” children. They inspire news coverage and social media posts, but no one really seems to know how to counteract them.

It’s a question that goes deeper than school board meetings, but is one we are not close to solving. How do we break through the misinformation, the inflated presence, the moral panic of these protesters to do what the county and children need?

In Johnston County, Cawthorn and Tennessee congressional candidate Robby Starbuck made references to a CDC study that they said found masks “ineffective,” and said that the left wasn’t trusting the science. They left out the rest of the CDC’s conclusion, that despite statistically insignificant findings the group still encouraged mask use as a strategy in schools, “because universal and correct use of masks can reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission (6) and is a relatively low-cost and easily implemented strategy.”

Cawthorn and another speaker evoked the fears of teen suicide as reasons to remove masks, a move that is well-rehearsed in Republican circles and turns mental health crises into political talking points They did not note that the majority of public school students in 2020 were attending school virtually or partially online when these numbers spiked, which would be the only option again if children and teachers were all getting sick.

The public spoke in the middle and at the end of the meeting. Anti-masking speakers included Cawthorn, Starbuck, an NC-4 congressional candidate, two high school students, and others. Only a few speakers overall mentioned that they had children in the school system. None identified as current teachers in Johnston County.

The pro-mask supporters included two Johnston County parents and a current teacher. They were passionate, but they were outnumbered.

In a perfect world, supporters of the mask requirements in schools would show up in equal numbers demanding the attention of the school board and media. They would be as vocal, as angry, and armed with facts to counter Republican talking points. The reality is that some feel it isn’t worth the argument, or that it isn’t safe.

Moore County, about an hour from Raleigh, rescheduled a Sept. 13 school board meeting after members received a letter threatening to show up to their homes. A protester shattered a glass door at an Iredell-Statesville Schools board meeting Tuesday night. A Buncombe County school board meeting Cawthorn attended was hijacked by protesters who declared themselves the new school board. These actions mirror hostility we’re seeing in school boards nationwide.

Mary Beck, one of the mothers who spoke at public comment, says her son wanted to speak at the meeting, but the “situation outside” kept her from bringing him. The anti-maskers didn’t have that fear, and at least one other caregiver brought their child to speak. Not only are these protesters fear mongering about mask efficacy, they’re creating fear among members of the public who worry about conflict leading to violence.

The people who are missing are just as important as those present. If one side is using folks outside of parents and students to speak against school masking, maybe community members on the other side should step up, too. Call and email your board members. Show up to meetings if you’re able to. Show up for people like April Lee, a teacher who spoke about how wonderful it is to bond with her students face-to-face instead of virtually, but also about the struggles to find teachers, and the state of public education.

“We’re in trouble, y’all,” she said. On Tuesday, in Johnston County, that sounded exactly right.

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