We are two of America’s original #OpenSchools moms. As far back as Summer 2020, we knew schools had to open to protect America’s children, or they would face dire, life-altering consequences in their learning, physical, and mental health.
Together with countless other American parents, we fought for kids every step of the way. We organized rallies and petitions, called representatives, and sued for school reopenings and to defeat school mask mandates when all else failed.
Last month, on the third anniversary of school shutdowns, with a grassroots team of fellow advocates from across the country, we visited the U.S. Capitol to meet with representatives about our families’ experiences during the pandemic.
We were there to make sure the lockdowns never happen again.
Among us were parents, doctors, teachers, lawyers, small business owners, and, most importantly, our children. We were there to ensure remote school days are not counted towards the required 180 days of school, to support proposed legislation blocking additional mandates for children, and to emphasize the importance of finally prioritizing evidence-based literacy, education, and health policy for all children.
We spent the day roaming the halls of Congress, five of our own kids in tow, attending scheduled meetings with some legislative aides and delivering information packets for those who were unavailable. Most offices were receptive and even attempted to engage our children, who were thrilled to lend their voices.
However, one incident stood out from the rest.
Our entry into the office of Hawaii’s freshman Congresswoman Jill Tokuda (D), who serves on the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic, began uneventfully. We were greeted by a staffer who listened as we spoke about the consequences of school closures. However, when we pointed out that schools in Denmark reopened in Spring 2020 without increased COVID transmission rates, her tone immediately changed.
“People over there are very clean,” the staffer demurred.
“What do you mean,” one of us asked.
“Well, you know, it’s just so clean in those countries. That’s why schools opened over there,” she clarified.
We were stunned. Was she saying her constituent Hawaiians were dirty, therefore, more impacted by COVID? Or that Americans are dirtier than their Scandinavian counterparts? That a virus could discriminate between hosts depending on fastidiousness? Where are these ideas coming from? Her comments were misinformed. We had heard similar from other representatives just the previous day in congressional questioning of journalist David Zweig.
Our visit with Tokuda’s aide got worse from there. While she continued to dismiss our comparisons to school reopenings across Europe, our children aged six to 15 remained in the room. As she ushered us out, she asked, “Do you feel safe sending your kids to school?”
The T.V. overhead was tuned to CNN covering the tragic Tennessee school shooting.
“Yes,” we replied.
The aide continued nonchalantly, “My daughter has five children. They are all homeschooled. Because she doesn’t want them to get shot in school.”
Natalya’s eight-year-old was alarmed.
“I don’t want to get shot in school,” the child cried. She was reassured and taken out of the room. We were visibly upset and asked the aide how she could be so callous, making such a horrific statement in front of children. She waved to the T.V. and said, “It is all right there; they see it on T.V.,” and dismissed us from her office.
School shootings had absolutely nothing to do with our visit. The staffer’s malicious comment in front of five children ages 6,7,8, 12, and 15 was inexcusable. Was the aide assuming that because we are #OpenSchools parents, we also oppose sensible gun control? Did she dehumanize us because – in her mind – we are Trumpist conspiracy theorists? (Natalya is a registered NYC Biden-voting Democrat, and Dana is a moderate Erie-County Republican who also voted for Biden).
Over the past 50 years, our nation’s congressional representation has grown increasingly polarized– bipartisanship and reaching across the aisle seem to be attitudes of the past. There is “us,” and there is “the other.” Without any supporting data and with only fear of a virus as a north star, Democrats largely have made it their platform to support “COVID Forever” policies for three years now.
Until we come to a place where allegiance to a party’s position comes well after a steadfast dedication to finding truth and solutions for the common good, we will never be able to enact positive and lasting change. Our divided nation will not have sensible gun control nor honest discussions on the developmental appropriateness and potential harms of introducing biased gender ideology to elementary school students. We will never have a parents’ bill of rights. We may never have education policy and funding that will elevate our nation’s students to achieve their fullest potential.
This is not representative of what America’s citizens want from their country. Most Americans are in the middle. It is time for both parties to reject hyper-partisan extremism and join their constituents there.