No compromises in sight for New Hampshire’s school mask policies
Jennifer Ganem and her family moved to Londonderry for the schools. Then, her kids asked her to run for school board over dinner six years ago.
“I had no idea what I was getting into at all,” she said.
Ganem was serving as the school board’s vice chairman when the pandemic hit. She encouraged the board to follow public health guidance, including on masks in schools.
“This isn’t political,” she often told her fellow board members. “It was really about science and keeping people safe, and the science changed and parameters changed as we went.”
Ganem’s stance put her at the center of a controversy consuming schools across the country. As school boards take up the colossal challenge of running a district and helping students catch up after a year and a half of pandemic-related disruptions, they face another task: balance public health guidance on reopening with constituents’ varying attitudes towards COVID-19.
In many cases, parents’ views are fueled by misinformation and resistance to public health measures — especially in Londonderry, which has only about a 50 percent COVID-19 vaccination rate among adults. The rate is lower among teenagers.
One of the state’s largest districts, Londonderry is home to many parents who, like Ganem, moved there for the schools. And when it came to masks, those parents wanted to be heard.
For part of the summer, the superintendent Scott Laliberte says he received 250 to 300 emails a day about masks. Some parents wanted a universal mask mandate in school buildings, much like the previous year.
Others insisted masks had been harmful to their children’s physical and mental health; some of them alleged this in a lawsuit against the district in July.
School board meetings in Londonderry used to draw just a handful of attendees. But over the summer, they stretched into the night. Some residents interrupted each other, clapping, and jeering during public input sessions while the chairman pleaded with everyone to maintain decorum.
And the battle didn’t stay confined to school board meetings. Jenn Ganem’s address was posted on a Facebook group of residents opposed to masks. After that, she said people began driving by her house, beeping and yelling “die of COVID” and “unmask our kids.” Her children stopped hanging out in the front yard.
After one particularly hostile school board meeting that was streamed online, a friend called Ganem.
“He said: ‘I watched the meeting. I’m really concerned. Please go get a security system,’” she recalled. “That said a lot to me.”
Police officers now attend the Londonderry school board meetings. Some parents say law enforcement shouldn’t be there, others say they should do more.
In a letter to school and town officials, police chief William Hart said Londonderry police officers shouldn’t get involved in what he called “a culture war.”
“It is my job to ensure that public order is maintained,” he wrote. “It is also my job to ensure that Londonderry Police Officers are not [...] asked to solve, with a badge, a gun, and a set of handcuffs a political debate that, whatever its merits, has been a raging wildfire across our country.”
In his 13 years as police chief, Hart has never sent officers regularly to school board meetings.
“These are intense times,” he said.
Not all parents pushing against mask mandates are as aggressive as those yelling at school board meetings. And in the end, their concerns were heard.
The district convened a task force of community members and parents to decide how to reopen. One member, who served as vice-chair of the task force, said she wouldn’t adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mask guidance until the federal government closed the southern border.
Following the task force’s recommendations, the district reopened this fall with masks optional, unless there is an active COVID cluster or the town reaches a threshold of new cases. This guidance involves some public health best practices but isn’t a universal mask mandate in schools, which is what public health officials recommend.
People in Londonderry schools say the majority of students aren’t wearing masks, but when a cluster emerges and masks are temporarily mandated, nearly all comply, and it hasn’t inspired any of the strife seen among adults.
But in spite of what many believed was a policy based on compromise, the mask wars aren’t over.
School board members are still hearing from parents who don’t want masks under any circumstances and from those who want them. The district recently rejected a petition to put the question of masks to the general public in a town election.
Only one school board member, Bob Slater, supported the petition on a mask vote.
“I feel how this has virtually torn our community apart,” he said in a board meeting earlier this month. “Why not put it on the folks out there that elected us? The folks that want masks get their people out to vote, the people that don’t want get their people out.”
Slater is a local business owner who sent his kids to the Londonderry schools and now has grandkids in the district. Even within his family, there are different approaches to masks and vaccines.
He says the role of school boards in navigating individuals’ preferences has become less clear as the pandemic progresses.
“The state mandate [for masks] is gone. The state of emergency is gone,” he says. “I’m Bob Slater — I can’t tell Mrs. Smith that Johnny and Sally have to wear a mask. I just can’t do it.”
He technically can. Many school boards in New Hampshire have interpreted public health guidance as reason enough to implement mask mandates. But Slater says that’s overreach.
“It’s a tough spot to be in, because we’re not doctors; we’re not scientists,” he says.
Slater is vaccinated. But due to relatively low vaccination rates in Londonderry and the unpredictability of the virus so far, he suspects the questions about COVID mitigation and masks aren’t going away.
“I just think we’re going to deal with it for the rest of our lives,” he says. There’s going to be different strains unless they mandate [a vaccine], and people are not happy with that now. And I can’t blame them.”
The ongoing controversy will likely be a major issue in school board elections next year. But at this point, many say the division is not just about masks. It’s about the accumulated frustration, fatigue, and distrust that has mounted as the community struggles to emerge from the pandemic.
Some say the mask wars have inspired more parents to pay attention to their school district and engage in board meetings, but Superintendent Scott Laliberte is worried about the costs.
He says he heard this summer from many families who didn’t feel safe coming to the meetings to express their concerns.
“That’s one of the worrying parts of the outcome here,” he says. “It’s been a fairly small group who are not civil, but that tone is driving away people whose voices also need to be part of the conversation.”
Jennifer Ganem, the board member who was targeted at her house, resigned this August. She left to take care of her sick mother, but she says the COVID battles also took their toll. Some of her friends disagreed with her approach on the board and stopped talking to her.
“I just feel like the divisiveness is from this lack of control in general that we all kind of are feeling,” Ganem says. “And rather than acknowledging it, it’s coming out as hostility and my way or the highway, and on both sides.”
Ganem thought her district had found some sort of middle ground. But it’s become clear that even a middle ground won’t end the mask wars.