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CHAPIN, S.C. — The August school board meeting in this South Carolina community started with a plea for grace. “It’s the most important tool we have right now,” a parent told the Lexington-Richland 5 school board.

Two months earlier, the superintendent of the roughly 17,000-student district abruptly resigned after months of sometimes heated debates about mask policies and social issues. A school board member resigned on the spot the same night, making way for a special election to fill his seat.

“We can either burn this district down and destroy it with bad attitudes and the inability to love and show grace to each other, or we can do something different,” the parent, Nick Haigler, said during the first meeting of the 2021-22 school year.

The calm didn’t last long.

School boards across the country are dealing with parents distrustful of an explosive mix of coronavirus mask policies, quarantines, and critical race theory. Credit: Screen capture from a from Lexington-Richland 5 school board meeting

One participant yelled into the microphone that students aren’t getting an education under quarantine. A mother, Alan Wright, called quarantine protocols “tyranny.”

Another speaker accused the board of listening to an elite cabal that, he said, runs the world and harvests the blood of children. “I will bring you up on charges of crimes against humanity,” he threatened. The audience applauded as he walked back to his seat.

Even after Lexington-Richland 5 returned to in-person learning and was one of the first districts in the area to make mask-wearing optional in schools last May, board meetings are still bubbling over with anger. 

School boards across the country have given a peek into this week’s red wave for months. In South Dakota, police officers dragged an unmasked participant out of one school board meeting. Unruly crowds have brought other meetings to a halt. The intensity has prompted the Justice Department to pledge its assistance to local officials.

This week, voters turned out big for Republicans in statewide races in Virginia, fueled in part by voter anger over coronavirus mask policies, quarantines, and critical race theory. Now Democrats worried about their chances next fall will likely pay even closer attention to the fury playing out in school board meetings across the country. 

“I will not tell them that they need to quiet down. It’s not my place, and they need to be taken seriously.”

Alan Wright, parent

A recent special election in Lexington-Richland 5 suggests the picture is complicated. Here, voters overwhelmingly approved a moderate candidate to replace a board member who quit in protest last June. It was the first election since the leadership shakeup.

Of the three candidates, only one, Tifani Moore, was open to mask requirements — if they keep children learning in person — and did not make the debate over critical race theory a part of her campaign. Candidates Haley Griggs and Jeff Herring were against mask mandates and spoke out against critical race theory, an academic concept that argues that racism is embedded in laws and policies, not simply an issue of individual bias or prejudice. The concept has been turned into a hot-button issue, in part because it is mischaracterized by its opponents as a belief that all white people are racist.

Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, has said he will fight against mask mandates in South Carolina schools. Credit: Jeffrey Collins/Associated Press

Parents, upset about school boards’ actions in response to the pandemic, are more likely to run for future board elections, said Scott Price, executive director of the South Carolina School Board Association.

“Previously, you didn’t see so many people who came on there with an agenda, but I think going forward, we’re probably going to see more of that,” he said.

It is not only elections that may dramatically shift the trajectory of a school system. Education leaders are leaving the profession in higher numbers than usual.

About 25 percent of superintendents across the country have left their jobs in the past year, a marked increase from previous years, said Dan Domenech, director of the American Association of School Administrators. That number is higher in some states, such as Alaska, which Domenech said is experiencing a turnover rate of about 50 percent.

Sometimes the departures are planned. In Lexington-Richland 5, it came as a shock, despite pre-existing tensions in the system.

At the same meeting where Christina Melton was honored by the Lexington-Richland 5 school board, she unexpectedly resigned. He departure came after months of tension over her cautious response to the coronavirus. Credit: Screen capture from a from Lexington-Richland 5 school board meetings

The board of this majority white district, where growing suburban development is encroaching on traditionally rural land, was split down the middle, 4-3, on most issues. Despite some vocal opposition from community members who wanted a faster return to traditional instruction, the board voted 4-3 to support Superintendent Christina Melton’s cautious approach to school reopening for the 2020-21 school year. However, after a November 2020 school board election, three of the four members who had voted in support of Melton’s plan were no longer on the board.

Last June, during what would have been the final school board meeting of the 2020-21 school year, Melton received flowers and posed for a picture with board Chairwoman Jan Hammond. Melton, who had been superintendent since 2017, had been named South Carolina’s superintendent of the year a few weeks earlier.

Later that evening, the school board went behind closed doors for a planned executive session. When it emerged, longtime school board member Ed White abruptly resigned.

“I’m not going to participate in this board any further,” he said, walking out.

Related: Can we teach our way out of political polarization?

About 15 minutes later, the board returned to executive session. When the members emerged a second time, Melton spoke, her voice wavering. “I’m a strong believer in seasons of life, including career. My season as superintendent is drawing to an end on June 30, 2021,” she said. She would end up relinquishing her superintendent of the year honor and the hand-crafted gift that came with the award.

Melton declined to comment for this story, citing an agreement she made with Lexington-Richland 5. White told local news outlets Melton was forced out by other board members who had created a “hostile and abusive work environment.”

Alan Wright and Leslie Stiles, both mothers of children in the district, have been pulled into the debates.

Wright started attending school board meetings to protest mask mandates and quarantine protocols. The meetings have been heated, she said, but that’s what happens when parents aren’t being heard.

“So, I will not tell them that they need to quiet down. It’s not my place, and they need to be taken seriously,” Wright said.

Wright withdrew her daughter from the district because she didn’t agree that all students in classrooms with a positive Covid-19 case should be quarantined and she believes the schools are “indoctrinating students” with messages supporting critical race theory and a fluid use of gender pronouns.

But as strongly as Wright feels about these issues, she said she wants to bridge the divide that exists between parents. She just doesn’t know how. It’s hard to convey these conflicting views in the three minutes she’s allowed to speak during public comment.

“As different as we all are, I do think most people’s concerns are genuine,” she said.

Stiles has left school board meetings rattled.

She runs a Facebook group called “Deep Dive Into D5” where parents can ask questions and present concerns about a district that has been torn into factions.

“I have a lot of people reaching out to me, and a lot of them are not comfortable speaking up,” Stiles said. “If you have parents who think they can’t come to a board meeting and speak about their children, if you have parents who are afraid of social backlash for speaking their minds, I think that’s a toxic community environment.”

Related: Opinion: The pandemic challenged school administrators, but didn’t break us

It’s not uncommon for contentious national political arguments to spill into local school board meetings.

School districts have often served as the battlegrounds on which clashes over broader issues — from sex education to intelligent design — are hashed out. But disputes like these have historically been less bombastic and more isolated, said Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor for Teachers College at Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report is an independent media organization based at Teachers College.)

The biggest difference in today’s fights, Henig said, is the role social media and activism play in the widespread dissemination of the controversies. Parents are launching campaigns and complaints at the same time, in so many places, using “similar language to characterize the issue,” he said.

“That’s a reflection of nationalization, where activists, both local and national, are really motivated by and drawing their framing from these national debates and injecting them into local arenas,” Henig said.

But how do most parents in the district — the ones who aren’t showing up at school board meetings — really feel? That’s not clear: Lexington-Richland 5 hasn’t asked its parents where they stand on Covid-19 protocols.

In contrast, a neighboring district, Lexington County School District 1, sought clarity by sending out a survey to all parents. About 75 percent of parents responded, nearly 70 percent of whom said they wanted a mask requirement. The state’s governor, Republican Henry McMaster, has said he will fight such mandates.

Board candidate Moore, a parent of three children enrolled in district schools, decided this summer to run for the seat that White vacated. She saw it as an opportunity to show that the loud parents who attend board meetings do not necessarily represent the majority.

“I have a lot of people reaching out to me, and a lot of them are not comfortable speaking up.”

Leslie Stiles, parent

“There are many parents and many teachers who just want the kids to be in school, and if wearing a mask is going to keep them there, then they are all for it,” said Moore, who believes the stressful environment at the meetings is stopping more of those parents from attending.

“I also think that you get to a point where you feel like your voice doesn’t matter. You get to a point that’s like, why would I come to a board meeting and sit through all of the yelling and all of the hate that’s being put out there?”

Moore, who ran against two other school board candidates who were explicitly against mask requirements, won the election with 56 percent of the more than 4,000 votes cast.

School board meetings have been the center of national debates over coronavirus policies. Credit: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Moore believes the election boiled down to a referendum on Covid-19. And she also sees her win as an answer to a question Lexington-Richland 5 hasn’t bothered to ask.

“What I hope we can start doing is remembering that we have to be asking the people who are in the classrooms and we have to be involving all parents in the district to get a clear view and representation of what our district needs,” Moore said.

The debates over Covid-19 protocols, and the tensions that go along with them, are unlikely to go away soon. And as those battles rage on, the post of superintendent of Lexington-Richland District 5, like so many district leader positions around the country, has not been filled.

This story about school board meetings was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Ariel Gilreath covers early education and K-12 schools in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. She most recently...

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