On July 27, I walked up to a grassy patch in front of the Central Bucks School District administrative building for a press conference. I’d been asked to speak in anticipation of the school board’s vote on their Health and Safety Plan because of my role as a concerned medical professional and parent in the district.
At the last minute, after checking my phone, I crossed out “34” in my speech and replaced it with “36” — an average of 36 COVID-19 cases per day, which represents a continued upward trend in Bucks County. I wanted to present the most up-to-date information available because, as repeatedly stated by local public health officials, “data drives decisions.” In fact, our group of health professionals and concerned students had created a toolkit of facts and figures, along with signs advocating for masking and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies, hand drawn by the high school students in attendance. We were confidently well-prepared for difficult questions, but laughably ill-prepared for the ensuing chaos and vitriol.
From the very beginning, those of us calling for using national and state health authority recommendations to inform the safe in-person return to school with COVID-19 mitigation in place were outnumbered. Within seconds of opening the press conference, the speakers at the podium were circled by people holding “no mandatory masks” signs over us. Our reasonable offer to take turns was brushed aside, because the intention, it seemed, was not to have a conversation but to disrupt.
Members of groups like Reopen Bucks and Parents Have the Right to Know screamed obscenities at us. We were called, amongst many other things: murderer, Hitler, and illegal aliens (three of us were women of color). We were told to “die.” A woman ran toward me with an outstretched arm and I thought she was going to hit me (a nearby friend blocked her approach). Our student speaker asked for decorum and was met with even louder jeers. While sharing how her family members in India died of COVID-19, voices in the crowd shouted that they “don’t give a s—.”
I stepped away shaking and shaken.
Since that revolting display of violent rhetoric hurled at us, refrains of “our community is divided” and “parents are on two sides” have echoed through news and social media. There are two groups: one that includes three pediatric medical professionals and one student speaking rationally about facts, guidelines, and personal experiences, and one that includes grown adults who belong to groups claiming to “protect kids” by ignoring science and who try to intimidate, bully, and silence.
But there are not “two sides” to this.
We all want our children to return to school safely and in person.
The disagreement stems from the contents of the school district’s Health and Safety Plan, a six-page document where the only mitigation strategy against COVID-19 was trying to maintain three feet of distance between children, with a note to review it as a monthly agenda item (since case rates are changing day-to-day).
According to the plan, there was no mechanism for disease reporting or contact tracing (“data drives decisions” is hard without data), there were no triggers for changes. As a medical professional, I know that at every doctor’s visit, patients are given a discharge plan for follow-up: please return if …, please be concerned if …, things are better if ... . Where was that language in the Health and Safety Plan?
Asking for metrics and mitigation measures based on the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health guidelines is reasonable. Yet that reasonable request was met with threats.
The First Amendment protects everyone’s right to free speech. But it does not make you more right, more ethical, or more kind.
We now have a vaccine against COVID-19. And even though we (individually and as a medical profession) anticipate continued harassment by these groups, bringing their hateful rhetoric and actions to light is the only inoculation we have against bullying.
Anusha Viswanathan is a pediatric infectious disease specialist, parent, and resident of Central Bucks.