Friday, August 13, 2021

GHAPS Board Needs Support to Protect Our Kids

Below is my column today in the Grand Haven Tribune.

Earlier this week, I attended the August 9 meeting of the Grand Haven Area Public Schools Board of Education. I attended because I wanted to speak during the public comment. The district had recently announced to parents that masks would not be required in the upcoming school year and, with a young daughter beginning young-fives at one of our elementary schools, I wanted to share my concerns about this decision. However, what I heard at that meeting changed what I said.

I arrived about ten minutes after the meeting began (reference the note above that I’ve got a small child at home!) and signed in to speak during the public comment period. The room was packed with area residents and parents. I assumed, given the handful wearing masks, that it was because of this recent announcement. 

My wife and I have recently decided that, given the rise of the Delta variant, we are going to start masking when indoors at public places once more. However, we’d gotten out of the habit and so I didn’t have any in my truck. I tried to tell myself that surely most of those unmasked in the room are vaccinated and that even though vaccinated people can still transmit the Coronavirus—particularly the Delta variant—I was hopefully not in danger.

These are the calculations we all make in this new world we inhabit.

The first person who rose to spoke after I arrived was a recent graduate of the Grand Haven High School. She said she wanted to talk about Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its use in our district. She talked about how CRT teaches people they are racist and is damaging to kids. She shared a story told by an author they read who is a black man. He was walking down the street at night and a younger white woman crossed to the other side with her children, clearly afraid of the large black man in the baggy coat. She said how horrible it was to tell that woman she was doing the wrong thing, when she was just protecting her child.

She was protecting her child… because she assumed black men are dangerous. 

The student was oblivious to the irony in this statement, the reality that had it been a large white man she very likely would have responded differently. Person after person got up to speak against Critical Race Theory, making all kinds of claims about how it damages people and tells them they are bad based upon the color of their skin. 

People talked about masks, too, urging the Board of Education to stand against any requirements that might come from the health department or the CDC. One parent claimed that the people dying in hospitals right now are vaccinated. She said she didn’t have a study to cite, but she knew it was true. (This is patently false—according to data collected by the CDC, more than 97% of people entering hospitals with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.) One parent pointed out that kids could do a saline flush of their nostrils and then swish with Listerine, and that this could be done instead of requiring masks. This parent neglected to note that the researches in the Penn State study said explicitly that “the findings need more testing in clinical settings but could provide another layer of protection to be adopted in addition to wearing masks and social distancing to prevent spread of COVID-19.” Yes, in addition to wearing masks. 

By the time it was my turn to talk, I struggled with what to say. What was clear to me is that our Board of Education is currently trying to stem a tide of misinformation and conspiracy, they are the last line of defense to protect our children against the false claims of so many people who continue to trust their own opinions over those of the scientists and those who study the impacts of race and bias in our culture. 

The first thing I told them was that I wanted to give them all a hug. What a difficult time to be on a Board of Education. I told them I could not imagine how, over the past few years, questions that used to be nonpartisan have become so politicized. It used to be that conservatives and liberals both generally listened to doctors and healthcare professionals, trusting that they are using the best of research to keep us safe. It used to be that conservatives and liberals both agreed that we needed to work to undo the continuing effects of centuries of racism and oppression in our country. Admittedly, there were different approaches at times, but we agreed to follow facts and, most importantly, we agreed that the problems are real. 

This is, sadly, not the world we live in today. 

Critical Race Theory is grounded in the critical theory approach to sociological questions. The whole point of this approach is that social problems come from social structures and cultural assumptions and not from individual intent. It emphasizes listening to the stories of people of color and seeking to understand their experience as they inhabit the system and culture. It is the opposite of telling someone she or he is a racist.

And, contrary to the claims of so many at the Board meeting, we do know that masks make a difference. One parent’s point that cloth masks are not as effective was right—but that parent missed the implication, that kids will be safer with three-layer paper mask protection. 

My daughter just turned five, she cannot have access to a vaccine, and I’m scared that she will be going to school at the end of this month and might have a teacher who is both unvaccinated and unmasked. I hope the Board doesn’t bow to the pressure of the loudest voices in the room. I hope they follow the recommendations of the Ottawa County Department of Public Health and the CDC and require masks for all students until vaccination rates rise high enough and transmission rates decrease enough to make our society safe once more.

When I finished talking, the room was quiet. It had been full of applause after all the previous speakers and I gave into my baser instincts and turned and playfully said, with a smile on my face, “What no applause?” I shouldn’t have baited the crowd and regret it—particularly because the response was heckling so intense that I immediately left the meeting. A high school student followed me out and thanked me for speaking up. He said he had been learning about CRT in school and nothing that people were claiming was true, it wasn’t representative of what kids are being taught. I thanked him for his encouragement.

The Board of Education is under attack… and they are the last line of defense to protect our kids from people who don’t believe in racism and who don’t believe in science. More of us must speak up so that the Board knows that we want our kids to be formed by the best research out there to help them actively work against racism. More of us must speak up so that the Board knows we want them to follow the recommendations of health professionals.