ROCKY MOUNT — More than 50 Franklin County residents came to Monday’s Franklin County School Board meeting to demand two things: an end to mask and social distancing mandates for students, and assurance that critical race theory never be taught in county schools.
They brought signs with slogans that included “Unmask Our Kids,” “End Restrictions Now” and “Stop Leftist Agenda.”
“We are mothers who are advocating for our children and being their voice,” said Ashley Mills, 32, of Wirtz. “I’m asking you to please lift all COVID restrictions.”
Their impassioned speeches found a vocal ally in Boone District Representative Donna Cosmato, whose motion to end the school mask mandate July 1 passed 6-2, and whose insistence that the board formally take up critical race theory during its July 12 meeting prevailed after some contentious discussion.
Toward the end of the marathon three hour, 15 minute meeting, about 20 of the original group of protesters remained, vigorously applauding Cosmato’s points about addressing public concerns and arguing with some of the other school board members. School board Chair Julie Nix slammed her gavel down more than once to call the meeting back to order.
The vote to end the mask restrictions happened midway through the evening. Gills Creek Representative Jon Atchue and Member-at-large Penny Blue voted no, with Blue in particular saying the vote was unnecessary as the board’s policy already allowed the mask requirement to end if Gov. Ralph Northam didn’t renew it at the state level June 30. “I basically just think this is optics,” she said.
Critical race theory proved a much thornier topic.
The American Bar Association describes critical race theory as an examination of how institutionalized racism and social constructions of race perpetuate oppression of minorities.
The theory emerged in the field of legal scholarship in the 1970s. As ideas from critical race theory have gained wider circulation in academia and progressive activisim, they’ve also sparked backlash. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, called critical race theory “the new intolerance” in a December article — an argument echoed by Monday’s speakers.
Conservatives across the state, including in nearby Botetourt County, have been pressuring local school boards to take a stand against the theory.
Staff asserted during the meeting that Franklin County schools don’t teach the theory.
“In my 18 years of teaching history and government, I never heard of or saw in any curriculum critical race theory, nor did I teach anything remotely connected to it,” said Gereau Center Principal Leanne Worley during public comment. She asked that the community not allow themselves to be divided by “nefarious fear mongering talking heads on the news.”
Later, while presenting to the board, Schools Superintendent Bernice Cobbs turned to the audience. “Students in our district, K-12 schools, are not being taught critical race theory. We instruct and will continue to instruct using the standards that are approved and adopted by the Virginia Board of Education.”
However, the Virginia Department of Education has made changes to the history curriculum that schools across the state will begin teaching in the fall, and that was the crux of advocates’ worries.
Cosmato noted that nine of the night’s 14 speakers in some way expressed concerns about critical race theory. “The community is concerned that CRT will be taught in the school system. They want to be sure that it is not.”
Vice Chair Jeff Worley told the audience that the state shapes the curriculum and that they should aim their efforts at state officials. “Your voice is more powerful at the state level than it is here at the local.”
Voices rose in disagreement, and a man in the audience said, “We can just recall you,” referring to the process of removing a school board member from office. In Loudoun County, a recall effort is underway against six school board members led by parents seeking a ban of critical race theory.
“Recall us, then,” Worley said.
After the metaphorical dust settled and the board agreed to add the topic to next month’s agenda, Nix made an appeal for civility. “I’d like for us to get back to Franklin County. I’d like for us to get back to looking out for one another. You want to take care of the kids, we want to take care of the kids, we’re all on the same side but somehow we divided ourselves in half,” she said.
Cosmato had one more proposal, for the the school board to create an advisory council of citizens that would look over the state standards of learning for the history curriculum “and see how we can exceed the state guidelines and actually teach the true history.”
Blue voted no, stating that there are many ways already in place to review the standards. The remaining seven members voted yes.