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Anti-mask hysterics at the Tennessee School Committee meeting reveal how basic public health is now polarizing

An explosive school council meeting Tuesday night in Franklin, Tennessee, showed how masking duties, even in schools where students are too young to be vaccinated, have become a new front in the Covid-19 culture war, largely driven by anti-Vax – and vaccine-skeptical right-wing extremists.

At the meeting in Tennessee where the Williamson County Schools Board of Education voted to require masks for elementary school students, staff and visitors to buildings and buses, Tennessee reporter Brinley Hineman filmed a video showing the procedures through extreme loud, excited anti-masks interrupted protesters shouted: "No more masks!"

Here is the video I tried to tweet earlier but didn't want to go through. A man disrupted the Williamson County Schools meeting, and MPs escorted him out. Dozens of angry anti-mask parents followed. pic.twitter.com/5LXDCJiInW

– Brinley Hineman (@brinleyhineman) August 11, 2021

Even more disturbing, after the meeting, Tennessee journalist Matt Masters filmed a video showing anti-mask protesters harassing doctors and nurses who voted for the masking mandate as they tried to exit the parking lot. (The clip was later posted on Twitter by Tennessee reporter Natalie Allison.)

“We know who you are. You can go free, but we will find you, ”said one man as police separated the crowd for the public health experts to leave safely.

The parking lot after a school council meeting last night in Franklin, the wealthiest place in Tennessee. Parents harassed doctors who spoke out in favor of masks in schools. “We know who you are. You can go free, but we will find you. ”Pic.twitter.com/SzR0uvMeE7

– Natalie Allison (@natalie_allison) August 11, 2021

The scenes in Tennessee are not an isolated incident. Similar hysteria erupted in North Carolina on August 5, after the Buncombe County Board of Education voted to continue a district-wide masking mandate.

If schools resume, the Delta variant will result in a sharp spike in Covid-19 cases across the country – and particularly in places like Tennessee, where vaccination rates remain low. But even as the number of children admitted to hospital increases, anti-maskers are beating down officials trying to keep students, teachers and faculties safe while allowing schools to open up to face-to-face teaching.

It's worth noting that children under the age of 12 – roughly sixth graders and younger – cannot currently be vaccinated. And the spread of the delta variant also carries risks for vaccinated teachers and staff, as it has shown a rare but still significant ability to infect vaccinated people. (However, cases in vaccinated people are generally much milder than unvaccinated, and as my colleague German Lopez recently pointed out, unvaccinated people continue to account for the vast majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.)

Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that face masks are effective at reducing the transmission of airborne viruses, including the coronavirus that causes Covid-19. But since it dates back to at least April 2020 – when then-President Donald Trump announced that he would not follow his own administration's instructions to mask himself – and continued Trump's repeated vilification of Joe Biden for wearing them diligently in the election campaign, Wearing masks has become an increasingly politicized indicator of how seriously to take a pandemic that has now killed more than 618,000 Americans.

But even if anti-maskers may be extremely loud, they seem to be in the minority. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation published on Wednesday found that 63 percent of parents of school-age children believe that unvaccinated students and teachers should wear masks in school. Similarly, despite all the excitement at Tuesday's meeting, chairwoman of the Williamson County Schools Board of Education Nancy Garrett said she had received 781 emails from those in favor of the mask mandate and only 348 from those who opposed it . As Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal noted, this data point – taken from a suburb where Trump won 62 percent of the vote in the 2020 election – suggests that mask mandates are universally popular in some red areas as well.

Nonetheless, railing against mask mandates has proven to be a great way for Republican politicians to fuel their grassroots, even with a surge in Covid cases. Texas Governors Greg Abbott and Florida Ron DeSantis – two of the hardest hit states during the recent surge in cases – have recently moved to banning mask mandates altogether, much to the ire of local officials who are challenging them in court.

Tennessee, meanwhile, has been at the forefront not only in efforts by Republicans to turn masks into a wedge problem, but also in efforts by the GOP to translate vaccine skepticism into policy. As I explained in July, under pressure from increasingly vaccine-skeptical Republican lawmakers, the Tennessee Health Department fired its top vaccine officer and then banned state officials from engaging with minors. These steps came amid an ongoing wave of Covid cases across the state, with hospital admissions increasing more than 100 percent in the past two weeks. (By August 10, almost 40 percent of Tennessee residents will be fully vaccinated.)

Unsurprisingly, after the meeting on Tuesday, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) tweeted supporting the cause of parents who defied masking requirements and wrote, "No masks for children!"

While a number of public health professionals and public health workers spoke out on behalf of Masks at Tuesday's meeting – "We would love if there was another way out of this pandemic, but what we have now is an option, our students." and vaccinate our public and we can wear masks until it all happens, "said one parent, pediatrician Dr. Jim Keffer – Other developments during the trial indicated that working in public health does not necessarily mean that someone understands basic public health best practices.

Outside of Tuesday's meeting, a reporter spoke to liberal Tennessee Holler with an anti-mask nurse who announced, "There is no pandemic." This nurse, wearing his smock, was later escorted from the meeting by a police officer.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Stands – one of the groups that fuel anti-mask demonstrations in the state – on Wednesday urged its nearly 13,000 Facebook followers to refuse to comply with school masking duties like the one just approved in Williamson County.

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