A small group of parents and grandparents stood outside the Tipton County Board of Education office Friday morning, protesting the mask mandate approved at Thursday night’s school board meeting.
There were no signs being held up, like you’d usually see at a protest, but the passion behind their argument was certainly there.
Worried about retaliation from community members and biased reporting, they did not wish to be identified or to go on record but did discuss their concerns with The Leader. They feel blindsided by Thursday’s vote, among other things.
There are questions about why those in the minority – that is, the number of those wearing masks in schools – are overruling the majority, those who have chosen not to send their children to school with masks.
“About 10 percent,” director of schools Dr. John Combs told school board member and retired principal Isaiah Davidson Thursday when asked how many students were wearing masks. “There were not as many as I thought.”
Why they’re protesting
Wearing masks has been a controversial subject since the start of the pandemic. There are arguments for wearing them because experts suggest they keep the virus from transmitting.
Those who showed up Friday to oppose the mandate said masking healthy people, including children, is unnecessary and medically unsound. They’re worried students are breathing in carbon dioxide and fighting against their own bodies. They’re worried about asthma, panic attacks, anxiety, the lasting effects of seeing limited facial expressions, and the development of language in smaller children. And they said there’s no proof masks even work to help slow the spread of COVID-19, suggesting the packaging on disposable masks warn they do not help.
They also want to know what happened to the common cold, the flu and allergies during the pandemic.
Relatively speaking, one mother said, with 61,000 residents having only 492 confirmed cases was a low number of people with COVID. Eighty of those are cases in school-aged children.
The daily new case rate is 72.8 per 100,000 residents, the positivity rate is 18.6 percent.
Tipton County also added another death this week.
They’re not saying COVID isn’t real, another mother made that very clear, and they said it’s not about the masks themselves but about the freedom to choose. They’re angry they’re not being able to make the decision after the initial guidance at the return to school was that masks were going to be encouraged but not required.
“They belong to us, they don’t belong to the school board,” another mother said. “The medical decisions belong to the parents.”
A slippery slope?
They’re also worried this is the first step in losing other freedoms.
One father at the board of education Friday wanted to know what gave the school board the authority to mandate masks.
In April Gov. Bill Lee declared COVID-19 was no longer a public health threat and ended the state of emergency. Since then, the general assembly has passed several rules which make the authority to close businesses and schools and mandate masks a little unclear.
There is currently no state of emergency in Tennessee and county mayors cannot mandate masks, however local school boards can.
The father wants to know how he could get a refund on his taxes, or perhaps a voucher, so that he could give those funds to a public or private school he considers to be acting in the best interests of his children.
They’re frustrated, most especially, because they do not feel heard.
The vote, which they believe was planned and not on the agenda so those opposing a mandate would not attend to speak out against it, came out of nowhere.
Combs said he was caught off-guard by it as well.
“I understand their frustrations. I wasn’t prepared for a mask mandate, either, but I work for the will of the school board.”
They want to know why, if COVID-19 is such an emergency issue, the mandate was not implemented the day after the meeting. Combs said it was because he and school health coordinator Sherrie Yarbro had to update the verbiage and information.
The mandate goes into effect on Aug. 16 and will last, at least, until Sept. 9. Children will be asked to wear masks when they cannot socially distance in school and on the bus.
Playgrounds will remain open and there are not currently any masking or distancing requirements at the athletic fields and stadiums (that decision has to be made by the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association).
Protests will continue
The group of parents and grandparents want to talk with school board members and want them to consider holding a special called meeting for more discussion and more input from parents. They said they felt like being there, protesting, was the only recourse they had between now and the next meeting on Sept. 9.
They plan to return to Monday morning at 7:30 a.m. for another protest. They just want to have the ability to choose.
“How would people feel if we told them not to wear masks?” a third mother questioned. “Our choice was just taken away.”