Covid changed parents’ view of schools — and ignited the education culture wars

A packed regular monthly school board meeting in Mentor, Ohio, on March 14. (Dustin Franz)
15 min

MENTOR, Ohio — It was a school board meeting, but not one of the shouting matches the nation has come to know over the past three years. No parents yelled about masking, library books or critical race theory. On the agenda: door signage and school security officer pensions. Tonight, there was no time allotted for public comment, meaning nobody in the audience was allowed to speak.

Nonetheless, nearly every chair was filled. On a frigid Tuesday in early March, a dozen adults sat split by an aisle into two camps: To the left were members of Support Public Education in Mentor, three of them clad in red T-shirts bearing the left-leaning group’s name. To the right were those affiliated with Concerned Mentor Taxpayers, which trends Christian and conservative. One man wore a camouflage baseball cap and a bracelet patterned with an American flag.

Neither side looked at the other.

At 6:03 p.m., Superintendent Craig Heath cleared his throat: “Welcome,” he said.

All at once, adults across the room raised pens and pencils. They bent their heads over notebooks. They started scribbling.

The scrutiny, distrust and hostility on display here — between members of the opposing parent groups, between parents and the school board, and among board members, some of whom won election in 2021 by running partisan races — is emblematic of a fissure over public schooling that has cracked America into pieces since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when politics and societal upheaval sharpened existing divides.

Concerns first emerged during the early phase of the pandemic, when parents facing school closures began showing up at school board meetings to demand in-person classes — or insist on continued virtual learning. Soon, membership exploded in Facebook groups that sought to end masking — or add new safety measures. From the start, the fight took on a political cast: Right-leaning parents tended to argue against precautions such as mandatory vaccination, while left-leaning parents advocated for them.

But as the covid case rates and death counts eventually abated, the anger and frustration did not. Instead, it morphed into conflicts over what schools should be teaching. Some conservative parents, granted an unprecedented glimpse into lessons during virtual learning, took issue with teacher-led discussions of race, gender and sexual orientation, arguing educators were promoting the views of the political left. They founded national organizations such as Moms for Liberty to promote greater parental control of education and eradicate books they deemed sexually inappropriate from school libraries. Politicians capitalized on the swelling discontent to pass at least 64 laws across 25 states restricting what children can learn and do at school, per a Washington Post analysis.

Those on the left have been slower to organize. But state-level and national advocacy groups are now emerging on that side, too — including the Florida Freedom to Read Project, a parent group fighting book bans, and Defense of Democracy, a national organization based in New York that aims to counter Moms for Liberty chapters nationwide.

Cries to remove books from classrooms and library shelves is nothing new. Some of what has shifted are the storylines, characters and authors being silenced. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Illustration: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

In Mentor, school officials said they spent the years leading up to the pandemic hunting for ways to get parents more involved in the school system of roughly 7,000 students. Now, some board members would do anything to evade the gaze of their constituents.

“I wish we could find a resolution to this,” said Mary Bryner, 60, a 16-year veteran of the board who leans left politically and is considering retiring when her term expires next year, partly due to the climate at board meetings. “It’s negative, it’s wasteful, it’s not productive, it’s sucking the energy out of the administration, the board, our staff, our teachers.”

Added Annie Payne, a board member and self-described conservative: “For everybody on the board, it’s hard. You feel like you’re not being heard and you’re being constantly judged.”

It’s exhausting parents, too. Members of the Support Public Education and Concerned Mentor Taxpayers groups said in interviews that they are weary of putting in up to 20 hours per week on school issues — tired of attending all board meetings, even the boring ones; of reviewing lists of books and curriculums for worrisome content; of Facebook bickering; and of monthly verbal clashes during public comment with “the other side,” as members of both groups referred to their opponents.

“My marriage suffers, my job suffers,” said Amanda Alafi, 42, who helped found the Concerned Taxpayers group. “I hate going to board meetings. I hate sitting on one side and having this group on the other. I hate all these social media posts and comments.”

Lyndsie Wall, 31, a member of the Support Education group who recently launched a campaign for school board, said the education advocacy has worried her husband and is damaging her relationships with her 6- and 7-year-old sons. “I’m consumed on a Tuesday night with these board meetings,” she said, meaning “I’m not paying attention” to the children.

“It feels like we’re all losing,” Wall said. “It really does.”

‘Right down the center’

Concerned Taxpayers was the first to form in Mentor, a small town that is more than 90 percent White and politically mixed, but more red than blue.

The group emerged in spring 2021 as a Facebook page for parents tired of the district’s masking policy. Alafi was one of the early leaders, along with Payne, at the time just another Mentor mother. She would eventually win a seat on the school board.

“There were masking regulations, and parents felt like we really didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Payne, who at the time had one child in the district, although she later switched to home schooling. “Part of the reason for the group was to bring transparency to the mask situation.”

As time passed, the group drew hundreds of members — and moved on from masking. Soon other parents, grandparents and Mentor residents were getting involved for far different reasons.

Diane Popelas, 68, who has lived in Mentor since 1986 and sent her son through the public schools, found her way to Concerned Taxpayers after a fourth-grade girl she teaches in a Catholic after-school program said her teacher assigned a one-paragraph essay that Popelas interpreted as asking her to discuss why Black people fail to advance compared with White people.

Seventy-five-year-old Linda O’Brien, whose granddaughter used to attend Mentor schools, grew concerned after seeing a screenshot of a page from a training for Mentor teachers (also obtained by The Washington Post) that asked, “How can I be a co-conspirator while using a curriculum rooted in whiteness?”

And Leah McCullough, 38, who has one child in the Mentor district and home-schools her other three, dates her distrust of public education to the era of Zoom school, when she said she saw lessons she deemed outlandish.

“I started noticing, they would break off into these meetings and it was, like, [a video of] dancing Muslims under a rainbow,” McCullough said. “And I’m like: ‘Oh what? What is this?’ And there was a lot of talking about color.”

(Asked about Popelas’s and McCullough’s stories, Mentor schools spokeswoman Kristen Estes said she could locate no evidence of either the assignment or the video.)

A few weeks after Concerned Taxpayers debuted, a coalition of about a dozen mothers and grandmothers began attending board meetings to speak after, and against, its members. At the start of this school year, Melanie Majikas, 51, founded Support Education to counter what she called the anger and misinformation emanating from Concerned Taxpayers. In weeks, nearly 300 parents joined up.

“I wanted to show the teachers that someone supported what they were doing,” said Lauren Marchaza, 40. “Particularly after my daughter’s kindergarten teacher went above and beyond during covid.”

Lynne Mazeika, 75, whose children and grandchildren graduated from the district and who has one grandchild still enrolled, said she “just couldn’t stand the negativity anymore.”

Since their founding, both groups have notched what they consider victories. Both managed to elect a school board member favorable to their views.

Members of Support Education delivered flowers to every school campus at the start of this school year and in mid-March hosted a poetry slam and art show for a handful of students, school staffers and parents.

Meanwhile, Concerned Taxpayers says its advocacy helped convince the school district to discontinue its teacher training that asked educators to serve as “co-conspirators,” a change confirmed by Heath, the superintendent. Members also successfully petitioned for the removal of “George,” a children’s book about a young transgender girl. And the district is more careful in selecting curriculums these days, Heath said.

“I think there are a lot of resources out there that may lean significantly left or may lean significantly right,” he said. “And we can’t go either of those directions in Mentor. We need to be right down the center, every time.”

Payne, the parent turned school board member, said her presence on the board has helped even out the district’s course.

“It has brought better conversations that do hopefully lead to more neutral curriculum and trainings and things like that,” she said.

Heath took Mentor schools’ top job seven months ago, after his predecessor, William Porter, stepped down to serve as an elementary school principal. Porter wrote in an email to The Post that he resigned “for personal and family reasons,” although board member Bryner noted “there was a lot of pressure on him,” referring to parents’ and residents’ intense scrutiny of the district.

Heath had never served as a superintendent before, previously holding other administrative roles in school districts throughout Ohio. These days, he spends about 10 to 15 percent of each day dealing with what he called “community tensions.” Within the span of hours on any given day, his inbox fills up with dozens of emails from the Concerned Taxpayers and Support Education groups.

Noting that he is “an eternal optimist,” Heath said he thinks both groups are helping him navigate pressing challenges facing his district, including dismal middle-school math scores and declining enrollment. The conservative parents are forcing him to be fiscally responsible, he said, while liberal parents are boosting educators’ morale.

Still, Heath acknowledged relations between the groups are poor. Before coming to Mentor, he refused to watch any of the old board meetings because he did not want videotaped arguments to color his perception of the community. At meetings since, he has noticed a dearth of “civility and flexibility in the discourse,” he said.

He is hopeful the two sides can find common ground, he said. But he has accepted that managing the flare-ups is just part of his job.

“It’s changed, the way we have to approach education,” Heath said. “It’s probably harder now than it used to be.”

‘This is hate speech’

The two groups remain divided.

One wedge is the rights of transgender students. Mentor schools permit students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity. To members of Support Education, this rule is a common-sense way to ensure that all children feel welcomed. To members of Concerned Taxpayers, however, the policy threatens female students’ safety — and coddles delusional children.

“I mean, to tell children that they can be any sex they want … that’s patently false,” said Michael Williams, 69, a member of Concerned Taxpayers. “There are two genders, but if we say that, then they” — meaning members of Support Education — “say we’re homophobic.”

At the board’s regular monthly meeting in mid-March (which unlike the session on school safety a week before, included an opportunity for public remarks), board member Payne, along with Thomas Tuttle, the other conservative on the board, introduced a resolution declaring that “biological sex — male and female — is … objective, scientific fact.”

After heated and lengthy public comment, at which more than 40 parents and residents spoke, it failed 3 to 2 on a partisan vote.

Another major issue is whether the Mentor school board should propose increasing property taxes to raise $2.5 million for the district, which could come up on the November ballot. Support Education sees this as a much-needed boost to a struggling school system. But Concerned Taxpayers denigrates the measure as placing undue stress on the finances of Mentor residents — especially retirees and those living on fixed incomes — to patch up a scandalously underperforming district that has moreover shrunk in size.

Smaller things stir dissent, too.

About a year ago, board member Bryner posted a link on her personal Facebook page to research from Montclair State University that suggested offering comprehensive sex education as early as kindergarten can help prevent child sex abuse. “Sharing,” she wrote, “for anyone interested.”

Bryner said a friend’s question prompted her to research the issue. She was not proposing that Mentor start teaching sex ed to kindergartners, she said.

But a parent screenshot of her post soon made the rounds among members of Concerned Taxpayers, where it inspired the widespread belief that Bryner was advocating for sex education to start in kindergarten.

“I have been paying the price for that ever since,” Bryner said. “They throw it up at meetings, they have put it in my email, they have sent me private messages calling me a ‘pedophile.’”

Brandon Towns, a Black member of Support Education, has drawn similar opprobrium for detailing the experiences of his two mixed-race children at school board meetings. Towns said his children have struggled to grasp their racial identities in an overwhelmingly White district that can sometimes feel hostile. Recently, he noted, his daughter woke one morning and told him she wanted to be White.

The comment, he said, left him temporarily speechless.

Towns says expanding lessons and books that feature characters from marginalized groups would make school better for all students, including his own.

But members of Concerned Taxpayers disagree with the premise that Black children face discrimination in the district. Popelas, who for 25 years has worked part time in the Mentor district, said she cannot recall the system seeing a single complaint of racism in that time.

“I’ve been around a long time. I’ve been with the schools a long time. We’ve never had that problem,” Popelas said. “There is no race issue.”

The disagreements extend to conduct at board meetings. Both sides charge the other with nasty rhetoric, justifying their own epithets as a means of self-defense, or the calling-out of racist ideas and language.

“I was told that I was ‘a child mutilator,’” said Support Education member and grandmother Mazeika. “A child mutilator!”

“They’re up there calling us these homophobic, transphobic … White Christian nationalists‚” said O’Brien, the grandmother in the Concerned Taxpayers group who is Mazeika’s age. “This is hate speech.”

‘This is going to be ugly’

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Wall, of Support Education, sucked in a breath, pushed back a lock of hair and hit publish on the Facebook page declaring her candidacy for Mentor school board in the November elections, in which two seats are up for grabs. “WALL 4 ALL,” blared her new cover photo, above a child’s red handprint.

She was sitting on a brown plush sofa in her living room, her dog Penny gnawing a bone at her feet. Her husband was snoring down the hall, recovering from a late-night shift at the restaurant where he works. Her children were at school. Wall felt elated, ready to help shape the school district she attended and that has served her boys so well.

But she was also terrified. She feared, she said, what “the other side” might do to her during the campaign.

“I’ve just seen how dirty some people can be,” she said, noting she plans to install a camera outside her house for protection. Of her husband, she added, “I don’t know if he’s on board, even now.”

Across town less than a day later, Alafi was also thinking about next fall’s campaign. She had seen Wall’s announcement. Concerned Taxpayers, she said, is planning to field at least one candidate, too.

Alafi said she would like to see a less hostile tone this campaign season. A devout Christian, she said that her faith compels her to love others, not judge them, and that all Christians involved in the schools fight should “do a better job of finding common ground and trying not to choose a side.”

But she doesn’t see much chance of that.

“In our country right now,” she lamented, “there’s divide everywhere in everything.”

In a world fraught with conflicts and chaos, she knew one thing with certainty.

“This,” she said, referring to the upcoming school board elections, “is going to be ugly.”