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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Ruben Navarrette: Anti-mask parents try to bully schools to bend in their direction

By Ruben Navarrette Washington Post

Republican governors – who used to support local control over schools but are now eager to override it – insist their opposition to masking is all about empowering parents.

So says Ron DeSantis.

The Florida governor wants the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to butt out of public education in the Sunshine State. Yet DeSantis can’t wait to butt into the safety protocols of local school districts in Florida. The likely 2024 GOP presidential candidate seems to think that only he has all the answers, and that his office should have all the power.

Hey, Florida! Is this federalism? Or a fiefdom?

DeSantis recently signed an executive order prohibiting school mask mandates. He says that parents should decide whether their children wear masks. The Republican – who likes to call his state an “oasis of freedom” – told right-wing radio host Dan Bongino: “We’re basically empowering the parents to be able to recognize what’s best for their kids. … We pride ourselves on people being free to choose how they want to govern their affairs.”

Interesting. So is this what empowerment feels like?

This week, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro tweeted from his hometown of San Antonio: “My son and daughter start 1st and 7th grade today. As they do: Covid cases/hospitalizations are surging in Texas, including among children; Gov. (Greg) Abbott has banned schools from requiring masks; schools won’t be required to inform parents of Covid outbreaks in the classroom. Parents deserve to know that everything is being done to keep their children safe in school.”

It’s hard to argue that parents are being empowered when their children are put at risk of contracting COVID-19, and they’re kept in the dark about it.

To mask or not to mask. For school districts across America, as kids go back to school, that is the question. Sadly, it’s become a political question.

Democratic governors in at least 10 states – including California, Washington, New Mexico, Illinois and New York – are requiring school districts to mask up. Meanwhile, Republican governors in at least eight states – such as Utah, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas – have banned local districts from instituting a mask mandate in their schools.

Across the country, school board meetings have erupted into chaos. In Asheville, North Carolina, where coronavirus infection rates among children are on the rise, things got heated. When the local school board approved a mask mandate for unvaccinated students and teachers, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., called the measure “psychological child abuse” by “woke, liberal government officials … who think they are all-knowing and all-wise.”

Are we empowered yet?

As the parent of three school-age children – a seventh-grader, a ninth-grader and an 11th-grader – I’m not feeling very powerful. Given that I live in a state with a mask mandate, you might think the fact that public school students are required to mask up would give me peace of mind.

It does not. Mask hysteria is pitting neighbor against neighbor. A small but vocal minority of parents – gathering behind the rallying cry, “Let Them Breathe” or “Unmask Our Kids” – is throwing its weight around. Long on outrage and short on empathy, these folks seem determined to run the schools.

The entitlement is strong with this bunch. They think rules don’t apply to them. Rather than bend to meet the requirements of the school, they demand that the school stretch to accommodate them.

All the while, anti-mask conservatives claim they want to “empower” parents. Given the chaos they’ve helped create, and the confusion they’ve helped sow, the last thing this parent is feeling at the moment is empowered.

Scared and uncertain, sure. Nervous and frustrated, of course. But empowered? Sorry. Not even a little bit.

Public education is a right. But having your children attend the school of your choice, under conditions most favorable to you, is more like a privilege. Like flying on airplanes or driving on freeways, privileges can be revoked for those who refuse to adhere to safety measures.

Those parents who don’t want their children to wear masks are free to keep their kids away from school and home-school them.

Alas, the complainers have already decided that’s not an option. They want their children out of the house, and back in school. But on their terms.

Let’s be clear. This is a glorified tantrum by schoolyard bullies. Unfortunately, there are Republican politicians out there who empower it.

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