As coronavirus outbreaks plague America’s schools, parents opposed to common-sense safety measures like mask mandates have resorted to bizarre and even violent tactics, perhaps most notoriously threatening to zip-tie an elementary school principal.
Now, some parents enraged at a mandate in Ankeny School Community District near Des Moines, Iowa, are dangling a new, legal tactic, albeit one that risks sabotaging their own school system: threatening to pull their kids out of school, and deprive the district of funds.
The Iowa Department of Education takes a certified enrollment count on Oct. 1 to determine how much funding each district is allotted for the following year, a spokesperson told The Daily Beast. So if a student leaves the district—even temporarily—before the count this Friday, they may not be tallied for the award of funding for the next school year.
That means if students whose parents are enraged by mask mandates come back after the count, the school could be forced to make do with less—all to appease parents who refuse to accept experts’ consensus about how to avoid death and disaster in the classroom.
“It’s absolute insanity to try to defund the schools and then enroll your kid back into the school the next day,” a local mother, who currently has two children with asthma enrolled in Ankeny School Community and requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from other parents, told The Daily Beast. “Nothing surprises me anymore.”
The controversial tactic, first reported by the Des Moines Register, was floated by a parent as the local school board approved a mask mandate that requires everyone to wear a face-covering while inside school buildings. The 5-2 approval vote came after more than 40 people spoke about the mandate in a tense, three-hour school board meeting.
Ankeny parent Jeff Fahrmann was among those who expressed anger over a possible mask mandate at the meeting. That much was unremarkable.
But then he went so far as to claim his three kids were among dozens of students who would disenroll from the suburban school district if the plan went ahead.
“I have personally confirmed 66 students that will be unenrolled through a personal survey,” Fahrmann said at the meeting. “We unenrolled our kids last year due to the hybrid part-time instruction decision, and plan to do this again if you mandate masks without reasonable exemptions.”
To show his commitment to the cause, Fahrmann also launched an online petition for other parents “opposed to the mandatory mask policy and willing to unenroll their children for the October 1 enrollment certification date if masks are mandated again.”
Fahrmann, whose petition has since disappeared from the site and later said he never hatched a discrete “plan” to defund the school, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Still, interviews suggested his claim of popular support was no bluster.
“I, as well as hundreds of other parents, signed the school district’s petition to prevent my children from having to wear a mask,” Jeff Bettis, a local father who has two children enrolled in the Ankeny School District and was also at the meeting, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “I have no problem with masks. If you or your children feel more comfortable wearing them, then do so. That’s your right and freedom. However, infringing on the majority’s rights is unconstitutional!”
Bettis, who is not against vaccinations, insisted his anger lay with the lack of choice—and not the push for mask use to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Now, he said, he would be willing to unenroll his kids “in a heartbeat.”
“I also know hundreds of other parents who will also do this,” he added.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, the Ankeny School District did not specifically address the concerns or withdrawal threats from parents in their community but did note that they were prepared to handle abrupt changes to the size of the school population.
“A school district the size of Ankeny Community Schools frequently has students moving in and out of the district, and this causes our enrollment counts to fluctuate throughout the year," school spokesperson Jamie Loggins-Evans said. She added that since the mandate was approved, the district had, as of Wednesday afternoon, “not noticed any changes in the number of requests for students to transfer or withdraw their enrollment.”
“We recognize that parents and guardians have the right to unenroll their student(s) from the district at any time for any reason. We do ask that parents and guardians go through the proper channels to request their student’s unenrollment,” Loggins-Evans added.
While the Iowa Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment on the tactic’s potential financial impact, the since-removed petition purported to game that out.
“If the school chooses to reinstitute a mandatory mask policy, they are putting the district at risk of losing $7,048 in funding per student that is unenrolled because of this policy,” the petition stated. “Such a decision would place an even heavier burden on our teachers and other staff.”
The petition, which Fahrmann said he closed on Wednesday afternoon because “it has served its purpose,” garnered 1,332 signatures.
The strange episode is playing out in the context of extreme parental responses to COVID-19 guidelines across America.
Earlier this month, three Arizona dads were arrested after barging into an elementary school principal’s office with zip ties and threatening to place her under citizen’s arrest for following mask and quarantine guidelines. A school board meeting in Minnesota this week took a violent turn after several parents slammed new mask requirements. In Washington, three schools had to go into lockdown after anti-mask protesters—including Proud Boys members and angry parents—attempted to break into the school in the middle of the day. The same type of protest also occurred at a Beverly Hills elementary school.
On the since-removed petition, Farhmann thanked all the participants who were “able to show that the majority of our community is in favor of personal choice, despite the negative publicity and misrepresentations over this from the media.” He also denied allegations that his threats to take his three children out of school—which alone would cost the school $21,144, by his own count—was a plan to defund the Ankeny School District.
“I would like to correct the misinformation that has been spread and say there never was a ‘plan’ to defund our school. Every family has to make their own decision over what is best for their kids, and for some, that may mean unenrolling,” Fahrmann wrote. “The only ‘plan’ was to create awareness over the potential financial implications if enough parents made that decision for their family.”
However, if a school does see a mass influx of students after the Oct. 1 deadline, it has the ability to appeal to the school budget review committee to increase its funding. If approved, the additional money would be covered by local property taxes.
Iowa’s unique flavor of anti-mask-mandate protest is not confined to one district.
Earlier this month, parents in Waukee, Iowa, also threatened to unenroll their children on Oct. 1 if a mask mandate was implemented. The threat, which urged parents to unenroll their children for two weeks to miss the certification deadline, was detailed in a Sept 16 post in the Let The Parents Decide—Waukee Facebook group.
“MAKE WCSD PAY!” the post said. “If the school board passes a mask mandate tonight, unenroll your childrenn [sic] for 2 weeks beginning tomorrow morning…Spend the next 2 weeks having a fun fall break with your children, homeschool lessons and community homeschool co-op learning with others [sic] parents etc...After October 1 we will reenroll our students.”
Unlike Ankeny, which is about 30 minutes away, the Waukee school board voted to not implement a mask mandate for all students.
Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University who specializes in public health, suggested this mask protest tactic, in its most extreme form, was akin to “blackmail.” (Bettis, the local father who suggested he might withdraw his children, told The Daily Beast on Thursday, “I look at it as a way to protest, not blackmail.”)
“It’s outrageous that a parent would try to sabotage the use of mask mandates and try to actually threaten to take money from schools to make their point,” he said. “This is anti-health and anti-education.”
Acknowledging that Fahrmann appeared to walk back his warning in the online petition, Gostin said the parent’s protest was “a milder threat, but still a clear message that parents have the choice to withdraw their children and cause financial hardship.”
“It shouldn’t be about free choice, because one parent’s choice affects the safety of other children and the educational opportunities of all children,” Gostin, who is also a Daily Beast contributor, added.
The professor noted that mask mandates not only protect children from getting sick but protect the adults around them who are at risk of far more deadly COVID consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also issued guidance encouraging mask use in schools, stating that students learning under universal mask-use saw a transmission rate that was less than half of those without mandates.
“If you don’t have mandates, kids can get really sick, and if enough kids get sick, then schools will close,” he added. “It’s bad for the health of the children and their parents and it’s bad for the education needs of children. Masks are absolutely essential to save schools.”
Grace Heimerdinger-Baake, a mother of two who lives one district over from the Des Moines-area battleground, agreed, telling The Daily Beast that parents taking their children out and re-enrolling them after the certification was “ill-thought-out.”
“Have they thought about what happens to their children when they go back to a school that may have less money? Where is the money to educate them going to come from?” she said.
“It’s just going to backfire.”