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Shouted Down By Parents: Dr. Rebecca Bell On Masks, School & 'Shared Goal' Of In-Person Learning

A photo of young children in face masks in a school yard.
Abagael Giles
/
VPR File
Screened preschoolers, kindergarteners, first graders and second graders stand outside Milton Elementary on the first day of school last year. A lack of a universal mask mandates in Vermont schools for the fall 2021 term has become a source of conflict for some parents.

A recent school board meeting in Franklin County turned contentious over the district's masking policies for the coming fall term. It ended with angry parents shouting down a pediatric critical care doctor who joined the meeting to discuss the those mask requirements.

At the Aug. 18 Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union school board meeting in Enosburg Falls, a vocal group of parents made their objection to the district's masking policies clear:

“This is our building! This is us, you work for us, whether you're voted or not!" one parent yelled at the board. "You can be recalled, you can be taken down!"

"We're going to take a pause if you cannot stop screaming at me," a board member replied.

"I am not screaming at you," the parent continued, "but you are wrong, and offensive to liberty and justice. Goodbye!”

Heated school board meetings like these have been happening across the country. Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care doctor at UVM's Children's Hospital and president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, attended that meeting via video conference to answer the community’s questions about the district’s mask policies. But she was only able to share a few words before the crowd shouted her down.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Dr. Rebecca Bell about her experiences at that meeting, and what she wants parents to know for the coming school year. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: What did you want to say to that group of parents at the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union school board meeting, before you got shouted down? 

Dr. Rebecca Bell: Well, I wanted to make sure that parents knew that the decision that the school board and educational leaders in Vermont are making around masking is really broadly supported by not just national public health and medical organizations like the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], or the National American Academy of Pediatrics, but also by both public health officials in Vermont and pediatricians in Vermont.

So, despite the fact that, yes, we do have a great vaccination rate compared to other states, and we do have lower case rates of COVID, we do need to continue to take COVID seriously, and we do need to provide mitigation measures in the schools. And that includes universal masking.

So, I really was there to support our education leaders who are following this broad consensus around universal masking in schools.

Were you surprised at all about the reaction, about all that shouting, and some of the hostility you encountered? 

You know, I wasn't surprised. Unfortunately, we're seeing this play out, as you mentioned, all across the country, where we see videos of angry parents at school board meetings, and they're yelling at educators and school boards, and my pediatric colleagues, across the country.

And although Vermont has managed to weather the pandemic better than most places, we are not immune to misinformation. We are not immune to some of this aggressive behavior that we're seeing elsewhere.

I will say that I was surprised to hear some of the common themes coming from the parents. One, around parents using the benchmark of pediatric death to determine whether or not they felt it was appropriate to institute universal masking.

It was very common for the parents speaking at the meeting, who were opposing masking in schools, to cite the fact that no child in Vermont has died of COVID-19, and so therefore, universal masking was not needed. In fact, there was one parent who said that he would only consider it appropriate to mask in schools if one of his son's teammates or classmates died from COVID. So, he really needed to know a child who had died from COVID, to really think that masking was necessary.

This was a surprising thing to hear from parents, because children are not supposed to die. I'm a pediatric ICU doctor, and I do deal, unfortunately, with pediatric death. And it's never acceptable, and especially at this point in the pandemic, when this illness is vaccine preventable.

We do have children in other parts of the country ... where we have lots of COVID, who are getting really sick from COVID, and who are dying from COVID. And, you know, I don't think that's acceptable.

The fact that we have not had a pediatric COVID death in Vermont, to me, is not a compelling reason to not try to prevent one. Especially if the prevention effort that we're discussing, so in this case it was masking, it does not limit the student's ability to attend school in person, full time.

"... our shared goal is to have students in person, full time. This is really important, and I think we all share that desire to have students in school. And masking is an important part of that."
Dr. Rebecca Bell

Dr. Bell, it seems to me that there may be a small number of parents who are against masks and that kind of thing, but those voices often tend to be the loudest. 

Do you think it really would make a difference if those who understand the medical reasoning behind wearing masks, behind vaccinations, and that it's all about safety and keeping all of us safe ... do those folks need to do more? Even though that's not their job, and it's not their responsibility, necessarily, to speak out? And do you think that would make a difference, if they did, to maybe counter some of these louder voices we hear?

Yes. I think we need to do everything we can to support our education leaders. Because their expertise is in education, it's not in public health. And the health community, which I'm a part of, is the one making [this] guidance and recommendations.

But the education leaders are the ones who are experiencing the pressure from some of these members of the public. And so, what I really want to make clear, is that this [masking recommendation] is broadly supported. This is what every medical organization is recommending. And the school leadership is just following that.

They are, unfortunately, getting the brunt of the pushback. And so yes, I think we all — from community members, from the health care community, from the state — we all need to be very public and supportive of these public health guidelines.

More from VPR: ‘A Challenging Position:’ With Minimal Guidance From The Scott Administration, Administrators Craft Back-To-School COVID Guidelines

Dr. Bell, I hate to ask you a political question, but as we've just been discussing here, unfortunately, the medical has gotten mixed up with the political in this entire situation, regarding COVID.

You and the American Academy of Pediatrics are recommending a universal mask mandate, regardless of student vaccination rates. Would you like to see a mask mandate from the governor in schools, so this decision is taken out of school districts? 

You know, I would.

I think, to your point, the school districts shouldn't be seen as the decision-makers here. They're really just following the guidance. And, you know, everyone is agreeing on this guidance.

But I do think that it was much easier last year, when there was just a mandate for masking, because the schools could get on with the busy work that they have of educating our students, and not spending entire school board meetings, you know, being yelled at by parents.

If you had the chance to sit down with one of those parents who shouted you down during that meeting, and you had a chance to be with them in a civil, calm environment, and you knew there wasn't going to be any shouting, what would you want to tell that parent? 

What I usually do is start with a shared goal. And our shared goal is to have students in person, full time. This is really important, and I think we all share that desire to have students in school. And masking is an important part of that.

It will help limit the spread of COVID. It will help limit the spread of other respiratory viruses that we're actually seeing a lot of right now, which we weren't seeing at the start of the school last summer. So, we want to keep students in school, with minimal interruptions. Masking is going to be one important part of that.

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