Michigan school board members – volunteers who are typically parents or former educators – face unprecedented pressure and scrutiny as they enter a third school year during the COVID-19 pandemic .
Unlike last year, Michigan does not have a statewide mask mandate, leaving the decision in the hands of county health departments and local school boards. School officials dealt with threats and angry parents over COVID security measures, as well as social issues like racial justice and LGBTQ + rights.
âIt is never acceptable for someone to threaten physical violence against someone else, especially someone who works so hard, devoting tireless hours to keeping people safe. They are only doing their job and we must give them our respect and support. And we have to give ourselves a little grace, âGovernor Gretchen Whitmer said. noted Thusday.
But it’s not just happening in Michigan. And the effort is fed through viral videos, social media groups, Republican leaders and right-wing media that target school boards on Critical breed theory and hide mandates.
This led to several clashes in what were once sleepy school board meetings. At a Birmingham Education Council meeting last month, a man gave a nazi salute and chanted “Heil Hitler” in response to a Jewish woman and a black woman expressing support for the mask’s mandate, which gained national attention.
Board chair Lori Ajlouny repeatedly ordered those present to “stop disrupting the meeting” and that requiring masks is for the “safety of our children”.
Michigan School Boards Association Executive Director Don Wotruba Fears For Board Members’ Health Amid “Threats, Bad Language In Meetings, And Abuse No One Has Signed Up For” .
âI think the biggest problem I see for our members is the public’s lack of civility about the really tough decisions that volunteer school board members are trying to make for people on both sides of the issue,â said Wotruba.
“I sympathize with the parents who don’t like what’s going on, but our board members are not experts, so they look to these experts in the health department for advice on how to do it. what is best for the public, âhe added.
As the elected leader responsible for serving the district, I cannot take Google searches for county, state, and country advice, facts, and data.
– Terri Weems, President of the Farmington Public School Board
There are currently 229 school districts that have a mask requirement, protecting over 757,904 students, or 60.5%, by Whitmer’s office. And at least 15 departmental health departments in Michigan, kindergarten to grade 6 students are currently required to wear masks because most are too young to be vaccinated.
It’s not just school board members who receive hateful and disruptive responses from residents and even those out of state.
Two Genesee County Medical Officers of Health death threats reported by phone from someone who speaks against the county warrant mask for kindergarten to grade 6 students, teachers and staff. Some people, including the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), have lambasted Allegan County health officials over letters to parents whose students may have been exposed to COVID.
âWe should help our public health officials protect our children and our communities, without berating them and trying to stop them from doing the important work of helping us stay safe and healthy,â said Linda Vail, Director Ingham County Health Department.
There is now a statewide petition to strip local and state health officials of their authority to manage crises like COVID-19. The right-wing group that circulates it, Unlock Michigan, succeeded in overturning a 1945 law that Whitmer used at the start of the pandemic to issue health orders. Under Michigan law, the legislature can approve citizen-led petitions before they go to a statewide vote – and the governor has no veto power.
In Oakland County, the Farmington Public Schools Board of Education’s plan to require masks evolved as more information became available and eventually aligned with the mandate of the ministry of health, forcing kindergarten to grade 12 students to wear masks indoors, according to board chair Terri Weems.
âWe did our best to make our meeting accessible for public comment and last year the volume of public comment was extraordinary,â Weems said. âWe encouraged people to write in their comments, so we addressed opposing views on in-person learning versus virtual learning and masks.â
During the 2020-21 school year, the board met in person for meetings without an audience to maintain safety and social distancing, Weems said.
âAt our first meeting this year with people present in person, some people were angry and some people had a lot of questions, didn’t like our position or were misinformed about who was making the decisions,â Weems said.
âIt’s been tough being a board member in general,â Weems said. “Our board members, myself included, have found a new appreciation for the role of a school board member working in distress with all the dynamics and policies that come into play.”
As a parent, Weems sympathizes with other parents over their concerns about their child’s safety and comfort level during the school day while being required to wear masks.
âAs the elected leader charged with serving the district, I cannot take Google’s search for county, state and country advice, facts and data,â Weems said.
With the Ottawa County Health Department issuance of a warrant requiring students under the age of 12 to wear masks at school, it meant local school boards didn’t have to make the call.
“When the Department of Health demands it, we will follow that,” Jenison Board of Education chairwoman Amanda Peterman said. âIt takes some of the pressure off us as a board. “
Peterman said their board meetings were “respectful despite differing opinions.”
âIt’s no surprise that we have passionate community members who share their personal views on the proper protocols,â said Peterman. “We got it last year and it’s no different this year.”
This year, Peterman and his fellow board members are prioritizing open communication and âregularly sharing the ‘what’ and ‘why’ behind the changesâ in decisions about schools and the COVID-safety protocol. 19.
“The community can handle the change of course if they know what’s going on, âsaid Peterman.
George Heitsch, the former acting superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools who recently resigned in June, described his experience with the school board at the start of the pandemic.
âThere was a lot of uncertainty about what was right and wrong and our meetings were virtual, so we didn’t deal with the mask speech in person,â Heitsch said. âNow the complexity of decision making has become more difficult, with so many parts that we cannot fully understand. ”
Heitsch said it was a challenge to serve during an emotional time.
âIt becomes such a personal thing for every adult involved and they’re just looking for what’s best for their kids,â Heitsch said. âThe drama of it all is so often based on fear. Emotions take control and logic doesn’t always matter at this point.
Advance journalist Allison R. Donahue contributed to this story.