Outside a school board meeting in Franklin, Tennessee on Tuesday night, a crowd gathered around masked meeting-goers as they exited the building. “You are child abusers!” one member of the crowd shouted. “There’s a bad place in hell and everybody’s taking notes, buddy!”
“We will find you and we know who you are!” another shouted through a mask-wearing man’s car window.
“You will never be allowed in public again!” an anti-mask man called.
An hour away, in Nashville, similar tensions were simmering at another school board meeting, where a conservative commentator—who does not have children enrolled in that school district—criticized masks as “child abuse.” Days earlier, in North Carolina, a school board meeting over masking devolved into chaos after attendees attempted to “overthrow” the officials and install themselves as a new board. And members of the far-right paramilitary group the Proud Boys have attended contentious school board meetings about masking in Florida and New Hampshire.
As America’s K-12 schools return from summer vacation, board meetings are devolving into schoolyard brawls over masks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends indoor masking for students as the COVID-19 Delta variant sweeps the country. Complicating that recommendation are a series of sometimes-conflicting state and local guidelines regarding whether a school can require students to wear masks. Often, school boards have been left to make their own decisions about mask mandates, risking reprisals from state governments—Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently threatened to sue schools that require masks. The discussions have invoked all the baggage of the country’s year-and-a-half-long mask debate, with adults showing up to argue even when they do not have students enrolled in the district.
The fight in Franklin, Tennessee—captured by journalist Matt Masters—came after a school board meeting in which medical professionals spoke in favor of masks. Though the school district does not currently have a mask mandate, it strongly encourages masking and announced Monday that it will reevaluate its guidelines if necessary.
Elsewhere in the country, school-board meetings have been abruptly adjourned over interruptions from anti-mask parents.
In Buncombe County, North Carolina last week, a rowdy anti-mask group caused school board members to end a meeting early. The group reportedly booed a lone parent who spoke up in favor of masks, with one member stating that she looked forward to seeing a school board member behind bars. After the school board members ended the meeting early, some 30 anti-mask participants attempted to “overthrow” the board, the Asheville Citizen Times reported. The group signed a loose-leaf sheet of paper declaring themselves witnesses to the formation of a new, anti-mask school board.
The board “acted as a dictatorship, and so therefore, the people then take it into our own hands to abolish that governance and reelect new members right then and there,” an anti-mask participant told the Citizen Times.
Some of the anti-mask demonstrations have their origins on Facebook. School masking opponents in Vigo County, Indiana launched a Facebook group on Tuesday, one day after a boisterous meeting during which school board officials ultimately voted to mandate masks. By Tuesday evening, the Facebook group had more than 1,000 followers, some of whom shared conspiracy theories about masks being part of a “globalist agenda” to “enslave” children. The brand-new Facebook group also directed members to a Wednesday morning anti-mask protest outside an elementary school.
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Not all attendees at these meetings are parents. GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn spoke at the Buncombe County event, accusing the school board of “muzzling” children.
“You have muzzled [parents’] voices just as you have muzzled our children,” said Cawthorn, who does not have children of his own. Cawthorn has protested masks in Congress, removing his dramatically during a speech this year, and decrying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “not God” when she reinstated a mask mandate on the House floor.
Meanwhile in Nashville on Tuesday night, conservative commentator Matt Walsh took the microphone at a school board meeting, despite being a vocal advocate for homeschooling.
Walsh, who did not return a request for comment, claimed that masking students was “child abuse” pushed by adults experiencing “Munchausen syndrome by proxy” and that there was no evidence that COVID-19 affects children, the Tennesseean reported. (COVID-19 can affect children, and the Delta variant has resulted in a spike in child hospitalizations.)
Multiple Florida schools have also seen an influx in outsiders crashing their meetings on masking. Last month, a group of men with Proud Boy uniforms and anti-masking signs attended a Palm Beach County, Florida school board meeting, CBS12 reported. Members of the group sat inside the meeting, and stood on a street corner with a banner bedecked in the Proud Boys logo and the slogan “unmask the children.”
That same month, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio attended a school board meeting in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. Tarrio told WPLG Local 10 News that members of his group were there to speak against masks, vaccine requirements, and “critical race theory.”
Spurious claims about “critical race theory” have previously ignited school board meetings this year, drawing their own crowds of non-parents to protest. An academic framework that examines embedded racism, particularly in the legal system, critical race theory is seldom the stuff of K-12 education. Instead, commentators on the right have used the term to spread fear about lessons that address racism in America’s past (or present). In Los Alamitos, California this spring, rumors of critical race theory drew a far-right crowd to protest outside a school board meeting. Members of the crowd included a notoriously anti-LGBT activist, as well as someone who advocated murdering “communists” via helicopter, and someone who shouted that a gay counter-protester couple was helping eradicate “the white race.”
In Nashua, New Hampshire, phobias of critical race theory and masks met head-on in a late July school board meeting. There, uniformed Proud Boys held signs ostensibly condemning critical race theory, while another man, who was not a local parent, spoke against masks until meeting moderators turned off his microphone.
The meeting’s Proud Boys could not be identified because they were wearing dark sunglasses and, ironically, masks.