Mothers who protest school directives have been mocked by late-night comics, sued by teachers unions, condemned as white supremacists by the media, and branded as “domestic terrorists” by school boards. Most recently, they’ve been threatened with an FBI investigation by President Biden’s Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Their schools have punished them as well. For refusing to go along with a mask mandate, her daughters were placed in isolation for the entire school day, says one mom in Williamson County, Tennessee.
“My two middle schoolers have been in In-School Suspension every day this week,” says Kristin McKinney. Her daughters are separated from the other kids from the moment they arrive at school until they get on the bus to go home, sitting in silence in a separate room, with two prescheduled bathroom breaks and, on good days, two 15-minute walks outside.
McKinney says she asked the principal if her daughters could join the other kids for lunch because there was no mask requirement in the cafeteria: “I was told no because under ISS [In-School Suspension], they’re not allowed contact with other students.”
Williamson County recently mandated masks for all school children, although parents were allowed exemptions for medical or religious reasons. The school board attempted, unsuccessfully, to have the religious exemptions revoked when, as one administrator put it, “a lot of parents found Jesus over the weekend and the exemptions came flooding in.”
McKinney’s kids are not the only ones without masks by far, but they are among the few who refused to sign an exemption request. She says all the religious exemptions that have poured in prove that parents “don’t want their kids in a mask and they’re doing everything they can to save their kid. As for us, we’re not signing a paper we don’t believe in. I won’t put my kids in intentional harm. We have to make choices, though, because having them in isolation all week certainly has consequences.”
While in suspension, McKinney’s daughters were asked to write an essay about what they did wrong and how they could improve their behavior. Her 11-year-old wrote: “I did nothing wrong and I was within my constitutional rights.” Indeed, much of this dispute stems from a conflict between what families see as their legal rights versus the dictates of an administrative state.
Schools Don’t Have Such Authority
“There is a bigger agenda here,” says Megan Heim, a mother of three. “They want kids who follow their rules. That’s why they’re infuriated that we won’t sign these exemptions. The authorities in power just want people who will follow their rules.”
One of Heim’s children has Down syndrome, qualifying her for a medical exemption. But she, too, refused to sign.
“When you do research on masks,” Heim says, “they are experimental medical devices, and there has to be a choice there. For me to sign a piece of paper, whether it’s medical or religious, implies that I believe the school has the authority to force every other child to wear a mask,” Heim said. “If you have a kid that you feel more comfortable putting in a mask, by all means that should be your right as a parent.”
McKinney, Heim, and two other moms are bringing a lawsuit against the school board. They say they’ve had to resort to this because they no longer trust their local schools.
“For so long, we trusted the schools with our kids,” McKinney says. “The schools had never really been questioned. They had free rein.”
“We had a lot of dual-working families where everyone was busy and just shipping their kids off to school,” says Heim. “The schools have lost that trust.”
Fighting Back with Science
The moms can’t afford a lawyer, but they were able to find an environmental engineer who wrote a 200-page affidavit with extensive evidence from his work with other schools that showed cloth masks are ineffective in preventing Covid-19. In addition, because wearing masks for six to seven hours a day has been shown to be unhealthy for small children, America is now virtually alone among Western countries in requiring kindergartners to wear masks in school. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has recommended against masks for children under 12.
Instead, the moms are arguing for better ventilation and air filtration, which has been proven to prevent the spread of viruses indoors.
Rather than hold a public hearing to examine the merits of the affidavit or the underlying parent objections, the Williamson County School Board moved to have the suit dismissed, arguing among other things that parents don’t have the right to sue on behalf of their children. McKinney and Heim were alarmed and infuriated to hear School Board Member Brad Fiscus state that local schools had custody of their children during school hours.
“It’s pretty telling when you have a board member who proclaims that once your kids walk through that school door, they belong to the school,” McKinney says. “I don’t know how any parent can be okay with that. I don’t care what your views are.”
Heim added, “Any parent that doesn’t completely bristle at that isn’t paying attention, because where does that go? I don’t think they’re just talking about education. To think that when you drop your kids off at school, somebody else can make every decision for them, is terrifying.”
For these moms, the issue goes far beyond masks to the question of parental rights.
“Every parent has to realize that you have skin in this game,” Heim says. “If you’re a parent who loves your child, you are going to have to stand up at some point for that child. You may not have skin in the game on a mask mandate, but you have skin in the game on parents’ rights.”
Democrats: Parents Are Subservient to Schools
Far from being an outlier, Fiscus’ view that school directives supersede parents’ rights appears to be mainstream among educators. Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe stated last week that parents should not be “telling schools what to teach.” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona also made clear that parents are not the primary stakeholder in their kids’ education.
In response to parent outrage, the Williamson County Board took action to limit parent comments at public meetings — similar to Loudoun County, Virginia — barring non-resident speakers, limiting the number of parents who can speak to 30, requiring parents to register in advance, and limiting the comment period to 30 minutes, implying 60 seconds per parent. This came on the heels of a request from the National School Boards Association for the federal government to use the Patriot Act to prosecute recalcitrant parents for “hate crimes.”
Parents’ conflict with school boards goes beyond medical mandates. It also includes what’s being taught in the classroom.
“Because of Covid,” says Heim, “parents got insight into what was being taught and did not like it. Now we’re trying to figure out how to undo it, but the problem is so deep and so pervasive that it’s a really big lift. The medical freedom is the battle that’s upon us right now, whereas the curriculum issue is the long battle.”
Fearing for the Future
Heim and McKinney fear that vaccine mandates for children may be coming to Tennessee soon. When Fiscus resigned from the school board, county commissioners moved to replace him with Josh Brown, a lobbying executive at Pfizer. There was no election held for this board seat, nor does there appear to have been much community involvement in the decision.
In addition to being ignored by the school board, the moms’ lawsuit is facing dismissal in the courts. Their request for a restraining order against mask mandates has been denied twice, not on its merits but for procedural reasons. The presiding U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw is the same who quickly issued a restraining order to block Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s directive that parents could opt their children out of school mask mandates.
Asked about the recent threat of an FBI investigation, McKinney pauses. “We do have to take it seriously,” she says, “because I don’t think they’re kidding when they say they want to come after parents who are speaking out against policy. But when the American public is being told that when you disagree with policy, we’re coming after you, that’s not just censorship, that’s full board communism. And all it does is make me more determined, because I would rather risk it all now than have my kids have no freedom later.”
Despite the long odds, these parents seem to believe that they will one day succeed in their struggle. “It’s going to be won in the courts,” McKinney says, “and it’s going to be won in elections.”