Photograph of Kathleen Lucas, courtesy of Kathleen Lucas
Photograph of Kathleen Lucas, courtesy of Kathleen Lucas

As part of our ongoing series on education, we interviewed Zeeland mom Kathleen Lucas about life during the pandemic, her ongoing advocacy efforts, and her broader thoughts about the importance of public education in Michigan.

It’s been a tough couple years for parents. First, the pandemic shuttered schools and forced them to juggle working, parenting, and teaching—all while trying to avoid a life-threatening virus. Then, schools reopened, with each district having its own set of safety guidelines. Some districts had mask mandates to try to protect children from the virus, but many others did not.

Kathleen Lucas is a 30-year-old mother living in Zeeland whose two children attend Hudsonville Public Schools. Over the past year, she’s become involved with the Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools (MiPASS), a grassroots effort formed in August 2021 that helps mobilize parents to fight for safer and healthier schools and higher quality public education—and push back against school leaders who they felt weren’t taking proper precautions to protect their kids.

The organization—which now counts roughly 10,000 parents across Michigan— initially pushed for mask mandates and other COVID-19 mitigation efforts in schools, but has since spread its wings, launching advocacy campaigns to address child hunger and to oppose a Republican-led plan to funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools, in addition to policies to keep children safe.

Over the last three months, we’ve published a series of Q&A interviews with Michiganders who want to share their thoughts on public education. As part of this ongoing series, we’re talking to parents, teachers, students and others involved in Michigan’s public schools. For this week’s segment, we interviewed Lucas about life during the pandemic, her ongoing advocacy efforts with MiPASS, and her broader thoughts about the importance of public education in Michigan.

If you’d like to be part of the conversation, email keya@couriernewsroom.com.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Growing up, did you go to public school in Michigan? What was your experience like?

I attended Rockford Public Schools. I personally had a great experience in public school, but I was also aware that my school was not a very diverse district. I was definitely aware of my own privilege and the privilege of the community—and the public schools—that I grew up in. I did have a great experience, and feel very lucky to have had that.

What stood out as being positive about your experience?

I did not grow up in the greatest circumstances at home, and the support of the teachers that I had through school was something that really helped me get through, and get through with success—graduating with a higher than 4.0 GPA and going on to have scholarships at college. I definitely attribute that to my public schooling.

How has your experience of public education been as a parent?

It unfortunately has been quite stressful with COVID. It’s not what I expected. It’s not what any of us expected. It’s not what any of us want our children to be growing up in, but it’s our reality, so we’ve adjusted and adapted and made it as positive and great as we can. Of course, with the quality of education my kids are receiving, I do have great confidence there—and I appreciate that very much. We have great teachers and a great district.

What are some of the difficulties you’ve encountered during the pandemic?

The usual, plus the COVID stuff of never knowing if plans you make will stick, if everybody will be healthy. It’s no longer, ‘Oh, we have sniffles but we’re feeling OK. We’re still going to go do our activities.’ At this point it’s, ‘No. We’re going to stay home.’ We would just rather be safe than sorry, and it’s been a lot of canceled plans and heartache—and a few quarantines.

When Ottawa County dropped its mask requirement, my daughter was exposed on the third day back to school without masks, brought that home to the whole house, and it went through all of us. I now have a pending auto-immune diagnosis since that time in January, and that’s been a struggle in a lot of ways as it has been for so many families all around the world.

Did you oppose the mask mandate being dropped?

Yes, very much so. That was tough to watch because the science, the data and the experts all say that masks work to protect our kids when they are in crowded public school settings. And to see that disregarded as cases remained high—not only on a district level but a county level, a state level and, honestly, a federal level too—that was not a fun time. It was very frustrating.

Are your kids still wearing masks at schools?

They are. They are the only ones left in their classrooms masking, but we all mask when we’re in congregate settings—even in the grocery store. We’ll throw on masks not only for us, but for students who are at higher risk than my own children. Whether that’s children with immune issues or children with families with immune issues, we aren’t just thinking of ourselves when we put on the masks. We’re also thinking of the people around us, our communities and our healthcare systems as well, as we saw them very strained and overwhelmed with the last surge.

Tell me more about MiPASS and what the organization does.

We came together in August 2021, right before the school year started, because Michigan didn’t have any mask requirements in place. And as like-minded people, we were all contacting our boards of commissioners, our health departments, our district school boards, the state Board of Education—everyone we could. Eventually, we kind of found each other through grassroots county groups that had popped up, all working together in this mission to make sure there is COVID mitigation in schools for our kids in the 2021-22 school year. Those county groups networked into Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools, so that is where we started. It continued on as COVID has ebbed and flowed. We have taken on some other issues as well that are important surrounding safety in schools—especially public schools and working against these initiatives that are targeting public schools that we do not think would be beneficial.

What motivated you to do this work?

Concern for our kids; concern for their future—the future of all the kids in public schools. That’s our entire future. Kids right now are our entire future, and their safety and health is so important.

What role do public schools play in your community?

It’s so important for public schools to be supported by their communities because public schools feed those communities and develop the futures of those communities. It really affects the workforce, the quality of the workers and the future of the workforce once these kids graduate.

If a school were to lose funding, it could completely change the landscape of that community. It could no longer give students a quality education that can promote them to a college education and good, solid jobs that pay well and invest back in their communities. It really is all connected.

It’s not just the pandemic. There have also been other attacks on schools and teachers over the past two years—like the manufactured controversy over Critical Race Theory and targeting of LGBTQ identities in the classroom. What are your thoughts on that?

Those are all important issues that we have been actively working on, because it’s so important for all students in schools to feel supported and to have the tools they need to grow and evolve into responsible, mentally and physically healthy adults. Restricting sex education materials straight up affects health later on in their lives. We’re definitely concerned about those issues.

You mentioned efforts to combat attacks on public schools. There’s an effort sponsored by Betsy DeVos to effectively use public dollars to cover the cost of private school tuition for parents who send their kids to private schools. Is that something on your radar?

We’re working against it because it is extremely harmful to public education in Michigan. We’ve been working with “For MI Kids, For MI Schools,” which is a collaborative statewide effort working against the Devos-backed “Let MI Kids Learn” initiative. We don’t want to see that come into reality. It would lead to massive financial losses to Michigan public schools.

It’s tricky, because that ballot initiative is misleading and may not read that way on paper, but it would suck money from our public schools—maybe not directly out of their funding pot, but it would be taking money that should otherwise be going to our public schools.

Some have argued that this is part of a broader effort to dismantle public education. What do you think would happen to your community if public schools didn’t exist?

It’s a scary thought because private schools don’t have to accept kids with disabilities. They don’t have to accept all kids without discrimination. Not everybody’s going to qualify for help, so we would have kids who aren’t able to access education. Public education is such a big part of America. It’s highly concerning to think about what could and will happen if we were to lose it.

What is your positive vision for the future of public schools in your community?

We want to see less division, as I’m sure so many of us do in our public schools. We want to see parents continuing to work with their teachers to support their kids’ education. We don’t need things like House Bill 5722, which would require teachers to have their whole curriculum turned in before school starts each year.

We already know what’s going on in schools. We all do. We all get the emails. You can request that your child be pulled from a certain lesson if you don’t want them present for it. Those are all things that we have the right to do right now. We don’t need more “parental rights” in public schools because we already have the parental rights that we need right now. 

Anything further is just going to push out our teachers. We want the opposite: We want to see our teachers supported. We want to see parents respecting parents, and other stakeholders in our communities respecting teachers’ expertise. Teachers really do know what our kids need to thrive, grow, and to be the best that they can be. We want to see them supported with higher pay and better benefits.

We also would love to see rights for parents as far as allowing more time off work to do the occasional school event—whether it’s volunteering in the classroom one afternoon every quarter or attending school parties. We want to see parents involved in the ways that we have currently available and we need to make that possible for them.

In your view, what is the purpose of public education?

I think it is to help our kids be the best that they can be. All students have the right to a free, quality education and that is what we have now. We have a great public school system and we need to keep improving that quality education that our kids are getting.

Investing in children’s futures is investing in our community’s futures.

Is there anything else you want to share or add?

Michigan Republican candidates at all levels have become increasingly vocal about wanting to “terminate” public education, as Ryan Kelley put it. The current threats to public education are as real as they get. I urge all citizens to vote in the primary election on August 2, and again at the general election in November. The fate of the future of Michigan’s public education, our future as a community and state, and the futures of our children lay in the hands of voters.