I’ve covered a lot of meetings over the past 40+ years. Some have been a little rowdy, especially about controversial zoning issues. A few have been ugly, like the one a few years ago at the old Benton Elementary School when the public was upset at plans to consolidate the school into another, nearby facility.
But I don’t remember a meeting with the degree of both public ignorance and public rudeness that I saw during the Aug. 5 meeting of the Jackson County Board of Education.
That meeting was a microcosm of what’s happening across the nation as schools reopen for the new year amid an onslaught of misinformation about Covid and the seriousness of the Delta variant. School systems are trying to keep kids and employees safe, but are finding it difficult to manage due to pushback from misinformed parents who, essentially, don’t want schools to take or encourage any precautions.
At the core of all that is not health care or even education; it’s simply politics.
Misinformation about Covid has fueled a rising political populism where rudeness and ignorance is lowering the level of public discourse.
The result is information chaos as the nation sinks further into a muck of pandemic propaganda.
It’s understandable that many people are frustrated right now. A few weeks ago, we thought we were seeing light at the end of the dark Covid tunnel. It looked like we would soon get back to “normal.”
But the rise of more contagious Covid variants such as Delta changed the game. The number of new Covid cases is rising quickly here and around the nation. Jackson County has the highest Covid rate in North Georgia right now and Banks County has the lowest vaccination rate. Hospitals are again starting to fill up with patients. Younger people are reportedly getting sicker with the new variants than they did with the first Covid virus.
All of that has led to another round of discussions about mask and vaccine mandates in public places, including schools.
Nobody wants any of that. We all just want the damn virus to go away.
But school systems just can’t ignore the implications of a highly-contagious virus that has caused so much death and sickness over the last 15 months.
If the issue were just about health care, it would be difficult, but manageable. But Covid isn’t just about health care anymore, it’s also about one group of citizens staging a political theater.
Misinformation and propaganda online has radicalized a lot of people who have come to believe that Covid is overblown and that their “freedoms” are being taken away by evil forces lurking about who want them to wear a mask and get a vaccine.
The result is that a certain group of parents, backed by partisan political leaders who feed them a diet of misinformation on social media, are pushing back against masking and quarantining rules in schools. They don’t want schools to take any action to protect children. “That’s not your job,” one parent told the BOE.
The issues of masking and quarantine rules are fodder for legitimate conversation in a community. But what happened Aug. 5 at the BOE meeting wasn’t a conversation, it was a political mob which wanted to cram its anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-government agenda down the throats of school system leaders.
Several people said things that were false and misleading during that meeting (and at the board’s Aug. 9 meeting,) but the worst offender was Natisha Kidwell, a family nurse practitioner at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.
Kidwell used her standing as someone in the medical profession to spout nonsense. She spoke as someone in medicine, but her agenda was clearly rooted in her fringe personal political views.
Among the misinformation Kidwell blathered was that masks don’t help slow the transmission of Covid. While masks aren’t 100% effective, they do help, according to the Mayo Clinic and other reputable medical sources. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, the nation’s top pediatric hospital, “Face masks reduced the chances of infection by more than 80 percent.”
Kidwell also claimed that the PCR tests isn’t accurate, implying it exaggerates the number of cases (the test is accurate according to a NIH study); she compared Covid to having a cold; and she questioned how lethal Covid really is by asking if people were dying “from” Covid or “with” Covid. (A clever phrase, but it’s total BS. Covid is killing people.)
Kidwell’s most astounding claim, however, was that people who have been vaccinated and got a breakthrough case of Covid were not doing well while being treated at NGMC. She offered zero evidence to back up that claim, a claim that is contrary to what was said by NGMC leaders last week.
Speaking at a NGMC news conference, Dr. Erine Raybon-Rojas, a critical care physician at NGMC, said: “Getting vaccinated will not guarantee you that you won’t get COVID, but the key thing is that getting vaccinated dramatically protects you against severe infection, reducing the chance that you will die from COVID or be hospitalized from COVID.”
Kidwell doesn’t work on the font lines with Covid patients at NGMC, so her comments carry zero credibility. (You can go to nghs.com/vaccine to get the NGMC's official position on masking and vaccinations.)
So why would she spread medical misinformation at a public meeting?
Because Kidwell had a personal political agenda she wanted to spread.
A quick look at her social media postings clearly indicates that she’s deep into fringe political views, including a post she made on Jan. 6 that claimed Antifa, not radical Trump supporters, stormed the U.S. Capital. (Antifa had nothing to do with the events of Jan. 6.)
No, Kidwell wasn’t at the BOE meeting to share her medical experience, she was there to spread political propaganda.
And the crowd on Aug. 5 cheering her on was just as bad as her comments — they were unruly, interrupting and shouting out other tidbits of misinformation they had obviously gotten off of social media.
Welcome to the brave new world of lunatic politics in the public square.
I feel for school leaders across the nation who have to deal with this kind of political-motivated claptrap while trying to navigate through a pandemic.
Schools have a responsibility to do what they can to keep their students safe, to keep their staff members safe and to help keep the larger community safe. By their very nature, schools have the potential to be incubators of widespread disease transmission. That’s a heavy responsibility school officials bear.
Should they mandate masks in schools? Should they quarantine students who have had close contact?
There is a balance in all of that; some students can’t wear a mask for medical reasons. Some students would be harmed by having to stay home for several days from close contact if they don’t have Covid symptoms.
But there are other students and school employees to consider, too. Some students and teachers can’t get the vaccine because of medical reasons, or their age, and are vulnerable to getting seriously ill if exposed to Covid.
The issue isn’t just about the “rights” of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, it’s also about the rights of others to be as safe as possible in a school environment and in the larger community.
I trust that local school leaders are doing the best they can under very, very difficult circumstances. Whether we agree with every detail of their Covid rules or not, they deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt as the new school year begins. Nobody expected the Delta variant to upend everything.
Like everyone else, school officials are trying to adapt in real time to a rapidly changing situation in the nation.
They don’t deserve to be hounded by an unruly mob’s intellectually-shallow nonsense.