A culture war hinging in part on COVID-19 has developed across the nation. Michigan’s school board races could be the central battleground.
BEVERLY HILLS, Mich.—Seven people stared ahead, sitting quietly in a large room at the Birmingham Public Schools (BPS) Administration Center.
One by one, they listened as members of the audience got up from their seats and took to the podium centered in the room. The audience members spoke—often with vigor, sometimes with anger—at the seven people, upset with their decision to follow safety recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As people spoke, murmurs were heard from the audience. Hoots and hollers, shouts of “Yeah!” in agreement. Others sat quietly, shaking their heads.
“Why are you really doing this?” one parent asked the board. “It’s not to protect our kids. They don’t need it. It’s not to protect adults because they can get a COVID vaccine if they want to. So, what is the reason? If you ask me, I say you do it to protect yourselves politically.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves.”
When the speakers finished with their comments, the group thanked them and the process continued, sometimes for hours. Applause continued as speakers sat down, scowling at the board.
This was life for members of the Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education throughout much of the summer. Board meetings, held on Tuesday evenings at least once a month, are usually designated for school business. Budgetary discussions take place, and sometimes, at the end of a drawn-on meeting, students and organizations are recognized for their achievements inside and outside the classroom. Parents cheer and take staged photos.
But in the summer of 2021, that changed in Birmingham and in many school districts across the nation. The conversations of school functions turned and focused almost exclusively on the hot topics of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken to protect students, staff, and their families from the spread of the virus.
A culture war hinging in part on COVID-19 has developed. Across the nation, school board races have become an emerging front in this battle. In the coming years, Michigan’s school boards could be next, and more attention will be given to local, school board races.
The Fight on the Front-Line
In August, BPS, following a recommendation from the Oakland County Health Department, announced that students and staff in its schools would be required to wear a mask. Masks have been shown to reduce the likelihood of spreading COVID-19, and with the close proximity of students and staff in the school setting, the district said that regardless of vaccination status, that extra measure would be taken by everyone.
It was this announcement that brought swarms of people to an August school board meeting. Some parents disapproving of the safety measure spoke out. Those in favor of keeping their children safe also took to the podium, voicing their support for the measure through cloth masks.
But a tense meeting, with a room filled with people of opposing views, became even more rigid when one parent gave a Nazi salute before being removed from the room. This example shows the tipping point for what has been a situation revving to boil over, and the mess very well may spill into future school board elections, which some believe is exactly what Republicans want to happen.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the president of the American Federation of Teachers has gone so far as to accuse the GOP of putting together school board protests and disruptive activity in order to “turn schools into battlegrounds with the goal of winning elections by politicizing both public health and history.”
These actions, staged or not, have garnered the attention of many. Contentious school board meetings are being mocked in skits on the hit television show “Saturday Night Live,” school board members are being singled out, and members of the public are using the public comment portions of meetings to berate board members.
But the GOP has also led an effort to take this war of vitriol and misinformation to the local level, targeting school board elections with the hopes of unseating left-wing board members and replacing them with far-right leaders. The movement has been seen nationally. Former Vice President Mike Pence recently told voters in Ohio to support conservative efforts at local school board meetings. In Iowa, a far-right group called 1776 Action has been sending flyers to people, urging them to sign pledges for education reforms and to support conservative candidates.
In Michigan, school board elections take place in November of even years. In 2022, many candidates will find themselves up for reelection. Two of the seven members on the BPS Board of Education will see their terms end in 2022.
In some corners of the state, the effects of the emerging COVID-19 battle have been felt at the local school board level, where parents and community members often spread or hear incorrect information about the virus. In Grand Haven, a school board president resigned amid harassment from constituents following the enforcement of COVID-19 safety measures, including a mask requirement.
“I have put my heart and soul into trying to become the best board member I can be over the past 22 years,” wrote John Siemion, the former president of the Grand Haven Board of Education who resigned on Sept. 2. “For the most part, my time on the GHAPS Board of Education has been enjoyable. I can’t say that anymore.”
Most Michigan school board members are unpaid. While elected, they essentially serve as volunteers, checks and balances for district superintendents and decision makers for the district on many topics. The resolve of these board members has been tested in the face of scrutiny that has gone so far that FBI officials have begun working to address an increase in violent threats made against them.
“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”