by Natalie Hanson
Editor’s note: The effort to recall four CUSD board members ended unsuccessfully Oct. 12, when recall organizers failed to turn in the circulated petitions.
“If the school does not enforce the mandates, I pull my kids.”
Parent and Chico State student David Gregory worries about tension in Chico Unified School District (CUSD), as some parents press for removal of masking requirements — and of district leaders.
Gregory has three children who attend Paradise High, Inspire and Paradise Charter Middle School. While he is happy with mitigation at the high schools, he worries about his middle-schooler.
“I try to be optimistic and tell them, ‘We have a vaccine and soon we will go to the amusement parks and you can see your friends,’” he said. “Then, without fail, loud, typically uneducated parents advocate against any sort of measures that may restore normalcy.”
Gregory is one of many parents growing concerned that a vocal group of parents and elected leaders are seeking to reduce public health measures at schools, sending the message to school policymakers to lighten up — or face recall.
Interest group Chico Parents for In Person Learning is pressing for a local recall of all but one CUSD board member. The recall movement in Chico mirrors similar political initiatives throughout the state rising out of frustrations with pandemic policy; 22 California school boards have members who have faced recall efforts this year, according to Ballotpedia.
“You guys have already made up your minds about how this is going to go — your political agendas are clear,” said Kimberly Snyder, co-founder of the Chico Parents for In Person Learning, at the Aug. 4 CUSD board meeting where trustees were setting enforcement policy on mask-wearing. “Masks should be parents’ choice, not yours.”
And one school board member, Matt Tennis, seems to agree with them. His stance is that schools should be open; at the meeting he questioned whether masks adversely affect children’s development. “My hope for the district is that we collectively work to restore normalcy as soon as humanly possible,” he said.
However, experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have sifted through reams of studies and concluded that masks are effective. Some Chico parents point out that masks can be removed outdoors and on playgrounds and argue that these are temporary protocols that could end the pandemic, not extend it.
Chico Unified School District board members Tom Lando, Kathleen Kaiser, Eileen Robinson and Caitlyn Dalby — all current or previous educators — are the targets of the recall attempt. The movement from a local group began in March as pressure to ignore state public health guidelines and allow children to attend school in person increased.
CUSD re-opened for in-person learning at all schools in August as recommended by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). In keeping with CDPH guidance, the district does require children to wear masks indoors as the delta variant of COVID-19 surges.
As of Sept 4, Enloe Medical Center reported 71 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, including nine in the ICU, with 87% of these patients not fully vaccinated. Enloe is decreasing elective surgeries and opening a third ICU. Butte County Public Health announced earlier in the week that there are 780 known cases of the virus countywide, with 100 hospitalized. By the end of August, 155 CUSD students had tested positive for COVID.
Board members say they continue to be bombarded with messaging that reflects statewide pressure on educators and administrators to roll back or ignore public health guidelines. Board President Eileen Robinson said the recall effort has been fueled by misinformation and backed by money from a local Republican political action committee.
“The pressure to open school up before we got clearance from public health was difficult to manage because, in my opinion, it couldn’t be done in a safe manner without following the guidelines,” said Robinson. “I continued to not support going against the public health recommendations. The vocal group seemed to have a lot of support in numbers. Yet when we did polling, the polls of parents indicated a majority of parents were in support of what we were doing.”
Some members of the CUSD board are concerned that the political messaging seems connected to the campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom and to right-wing ideologues — as teachers find themselves in between students and parents, principals and superintendents.
“The politicization is just bizarre and also incredibly frustrating,” said board member Tom Lando. “It used to be that we could sit down with people who didn’t agree with us and have a simple conversation. I will say that people who are really loud at board meetings … it seems like a fairly small group with a big megaphone.”
Lando said he sees most students working together to follow all rules, and the problem is mostly with “a small group of parents with a political stake in the outcome.”
“Most of the students have been really good about it. Every teacher I’ve seen explains it very clearly … ‘We want the school to stay open, we have to follow it [the rules],’” Lando said. “I hate to blame things on Trump, but I’m going to in this case.
“The idea that any poorly researched news story or fake science could become a rallying cry for people who felt otherwise ostracized or scared of what’s happening in society… We’re seeing what he did trickle down to the local level. They’re whipping up their base and it’s working.”
“Every teacher I know wishes we could go back five years when people weren’t yelling at us as we went into the classroom … about political issues we have no control over.”
Over the summer Lando, an educator, switched to employment outside of Chico, and said although his decision was complex, the atmosphere of public debate did affect his decision.
Parents in the recall group want to reverse masking, distancing and vaccine mandates in the belief that core personal freedoms are being violated. Those ideas have also been pushed by political figures across the state, including the leading candidate running to replace Newsom, far-right radio host Larry Elder, who advocates an end to mask and vaccine mandates.
Tennis has blasted local school closures that occurred last year as COVID swept through the state.
“In-person education is and always has been a right for Chico school kids, and parents have every right to be upset over last year’s closures, which disproportionately affected moms and poor families,” Tennis said in an email interview. “We will be seeing the negative impacts of last year’s school closures for the rest of our lives. Even though kids and families were falling to pieces right before our very eyes, parents had no political power to stop the disaster because they had not been involved up until that time.”
As for the current local discourse around the pandemic and school policies, Tennis said, “It’s good to see parents interested and involved with education policy at levels not seen in a long time — maybe ever.”
CUSD Board Vice President Kathleen Kaiser said it worries her that parents equate COVID protocols with the curtailment of personal freedom.
“The context of freedom is always couched with constraints,” Kaiser said. “Otherwise people might do all kinds of things that could endanger others. You’re not free to drive your car without a driver’s license .. or under the influence of drugs. You’re not free to disobey the laws of the road.”
She worries that school boards have become the focus for these battles. “The last campaign was very unusual. People with a lot of experience lost re-election and there was a lot of money in the campaign we don’t typically see.”
Kaiser said she thinks there has been a lot of misunderstanding “about how contagious or how dangerous COVID-19 was.”
“That information has also been evolving. Our own medical national experts have been having to evolve in their understanding of this,” she said.
The board members mentioned getting many emails from parents who expect them to sort through many different sources of information around the pandemic. Robinson said it makes her think people expect that each board member “has the background to evaluate the research and make a determination of whether it’s more accurate than what comes from the CDC and CDPH.”
“I’m sorry I’m not an expert in this stuff,” she said. “I have a responsibility to rely on the experts … We need to be able to depend on the structure and process and education that reviews that stuff for us.”
A polio survivor, Robinson said resistance to public health guidelines hits home when she remembers the period when polio vaccines became available. “Parents couldn’t get us those shots fast enough,” she said. “Imagine if that had been made political — or the smallpox.
“It was not difficult for me to follow the guidelines, because as a board member, that was what I felt we were obligated to do, was to follow the law,” Robinson said.
Chico’s Sue Peterson is a mother of an immune-suppressed transplant recipient who says the district’s COVID protocols are essential for her family. “It is hard not to take it personally when people say those at higher risk should just stay home,” she said. “I don’t want their kids to stay home, I just want them to wear a mask so everyone can be (educated) in person. And for us, masks are the best safety measure we can have when spending long periods of time in classrooms without social distancing.”
The role of social media as a tool for forum boards on both sides of the debate has grown more substantial and is a key part of the movement to remove school board members.
On the Chico Parents for In Person Learning Facebook page, parents post about their frustrations.
One parent responded to a cancellation at Pleasant Valley High School with “Why did they cancel it instead of just postpone it? People need to complain and stop with compliance! STOP GETTING YOUR KIDS TESTED!”
Another parent added, “This is so stupid! How many years are we going to make kids stay home when they aren’t even sick?!”
In the Facebook group COVID-Responsible Places Chico, parent Chalia Karlstrom has described her frustration with recall-supporting parents.
“Last year all they could complain about was wanting in-classroom instruction for the full day,” Karlstrom said.
“Now that they finally have it, they want to threaten to send everyone back to online school because they don’t want to protect their children and ours (not to mention teachers, admin, and staff) by having them wear a mask?!?! This is like a bad dream …”
Another group, called Chico Advocates Respecting Education, formed on Aug. 3 to stand up against the tenets of the recall. The private Facebook group, according to administrators, formed with two goals. It opposes the school board recall, and is meant to provide “a place of active encouragement and support for CUSD employees.” This group already has over 500 members.
Kaiser said she thinks people’s dependence on social media, combined with a lack of media literacy or ability to discern vetted sources of accurate information, have contributed to spreading unreliable messages.
“We let political figures not only circulate myths about what was going on with it [the virus], sometimes they literally blocked the information from even being presented,” Kaiser said.
Board member Caitlyn Dalby added, “It’s actually frightening to me the level of misinformation that gets circulated, not just in the immediate sense — because my daughter is well underage for being able to get the vaccine — but the long term effects of the misinformation are also frightening.
“I can see her growing up in a world where it’s difficult to navigate what’s real, because people are liable to repeat misinformation.”
A battle between science and “freedom”
Chico State professor Charles C. Turner of the Political Science & Criminal Justice Department said the fight for political gains in arenas like school boards over pandemic policy reflects what is happening across the country.
“President Trump was able to turn this into a battle between science and freedom, and his loyal followers accepted this even though it is pretty illogical,” Turner said.
“Second, pandemics are scary. This is the first one most Americans have faced in their lifetimes and they are not sure how to react. It is an illogical, but understandable, reaction to say, ‘I just want this to be over, so I will pretend like it’s not a big deal.’”
He connected common American philosophies about freedom to the issue, as a cultural tradition “to view any restriction on freedom (no matter how reasonable or scientifically supported) as oppressive.”
“So, many say, ‘You can’t make me wear a mask, or get a vaccination (or wear a seatbelt, or purchase health insurance).’ Some Americans simply don’t want to be told what to do by an authority, even if what they are being told to do will save their life,” he added.
Turner also called the recall attempt “low hanging fruit.”
“It’s pretty easy to meet the signature threshold in most communities and it’s pretty easy to find parents who are (perhaps rightfully) frustrated by pandemic policies.” And, he said small jurisdictions make it easier to influence communities via social media campaigns, which are “not bound by the fact-checking needs of the traditional news media.”
According to the recall group – which says on its public Facebook page that it has 849 members — several thousand signatures have been gathered through petitions, but they “still have a long way to go.”
The Butte County Clerk-Recorder’s office says the recall group has until Oct. 12 to gather the needed 10,800 signatures on each of the four recall petitions. That’s 15 percent of the registered voters in CUSD.
If one or all petitions get enough signatures, it will cost CUSD to run a full recall election “in excess of $475,000,” the office says.
Snyder told the board at the Aug. 4 meeting they could simply resign. “Save CUSD half a million dollars and resign now,” she told them. “Fight on parents, and shame on you, board.”
Lando does not think the recall movement will garner enough support to move forward.
“I think this is a small group of people who have been fed misinformation and they really think they’re doing the right thing. And they’re angry because they’re trying to look out for their kids.”
But Robinson said she worries that the politically-driven recall will hurt support for public schools. She said if people begin to lose trust in the local school district based on widespread misinformation, it affects everything, from volunteer numbers to votes on bond initiatives for much needed improvements.
And, the recall cost alone should mobilize people, Robinson believes. “Boy, could we use that money … Plus the fact that we’re all up for re-election in November anyway. It doesn’t replace us with anyone.”
Kaiser added, “My hope would be that the steps we’re taking are effective in the community and we don’t have another surge and the individuals are able to see the real medical consequences of wearing a mask and say, ‘OK, it’s worth it.’”
“If you look at the states where there have been political actions against masks,” she added, “their cases are climbing. I don’t think anyone really wants to risk an explosion of this. There are [sick] children, and some getting very, very sick. We run a great risk that that would mean closing our schools again. Why would we want to do that to our kids?”
Dalby agrees the pandemic has become a politically divisive issue, but she says there are people on all political sides resisting vaccination and masking and spreading misinformation. She said the district is constricted by policies at the state and federal level.
“All of the recommendations they make are based on scientific consensus globally,” she said. “That really makes me — as a big government skeptic — more at ease knowing there’s a consensus that’s worldwide on the scientific and medical practices.”
“I would encourage parents from all walks of life to get more involved,” she said. “Join the PTA … write to the school board. Write to upper officials. If they disagree with the mandates we have to follow, go to those people and express your concern there.”
Natalie Hanson began her career in journalism in Butte County, writing from the streets of Chico about city government, homelessness, housing and community interests for the Chico Enterprise-Record, The Orion and The Roadrunner. She now reports on San Rafael and the towns of Ross Valley for Marin Independent Journal at Bay Area News Group.