As a child in eastern Kentucky, I often helped my grandmother work in her large garden, lush with tomatoes, beans, okra, potatoes, and peppers. Granny was born in 1909, 62 years before me. As we hoed the long rows, I loved to hear her stories of living through the Great Depression and World War II. During the hard times of the 1930s, she said, neighbors banded together to help one another, pooling money to assist a destitute family or leaving food on the doorstep of a widow raising several children. While many fought fascism overseas, she and others saved rubber and tinfoil for the war effort and scrimped on food because of rationing on sugar, butter, gasoline, coal, and oil. “Not everybody was selfless, but most of us tried our best,” she told me as the heat bugs screamed around us. “That’s what you should always do.”
My own parents put these words into action. They cut corners so that they could help less fortunate kids from my school, or our church. I was taught to sacrifice my own comfort for the good of others, whether it be by volunteering my seat to elders in a crowded waiting room, letting a pregnant woman go in front of me in the grocery line, or giving half of my sandwich to a hungry classmate. I may not have always lived up to these standards, but I was taught to try. I’m sure I’m not alone. Sacrificing for the common good was something most of us were taught when I was growing up. Just a few decades later, I’m seeing people in my hometown, and all over the country, thinking only of themselves. They’re not just unwilling to make sacrifices for others during a pandemic; they’re angry about being asked to.
Last week, Governor Andy Beshear imposed a mask mandate for our schools here in Kentucky. After the brief respite offered by vaccination, I know it is tough to go back to masking and social distancing. But the backlash was immediate and charged. Parents gathered in front of schools and central offices with signs bearing slogans such as Let Our Kids Breathe and My Kids, My Choice. They expressed their outrage on social media. Our attorney general, Daniel Cameron, a protégé of Mitch McConnell, filed a petition with the state’s supreme court to stop the mandate, despite the fact that cases in Kentucky are climbing to pre-vaccination rates.
Jimmy Dyehouse, the superintendent of Science Hill Independent School District, near Somerset, not far from where my parents live, sent out a robocall to all the parents of the 440 students in his district announcing the mask mandate. On the recording, an exasperated Dyehouse apologized to parents for the fact that their kids would have to wear masks, called the governor “this liberal lunatic,” and said that he hoped the mandate would be overturned in court.
I spoke with Dyehouse because I wanted to understand exactly why he had such a problem with masks. He told me his students are “suffering” by wearing the masks, which were “nasty” and “unsanitary.” He said that many studies had proved that masks were ineffective. He didn’t cite any sources, but at least 49 scientific studies go against his claims, emphatically stating that masks are effective in the fight against COVID-19. Dyehouse feels that “the mental aspect of it on my little ones is more damaging than not wearing a mask,” claiming that it’s too scary for children to go into a school full of masked people. I brought up the idea that wearing a mask is a small sacrifice that could be seen as a patriotic duty, but he dismissed the notion. “Why should I have to wear a mask to help protect whoever, or somebody who chose not to be vaccinated, when they could put a mask on?” he told me. He didn’t seem to see any contradiction in the fact that his district includes only kindergarten through eighth grade, a tiny percentage of whom would be of age to get vaccinated. Besides, he added, he didn’t think that vaccination was going to get rid of the coronavirus, anyway.
My two children are grown now, but if they were too young to be vaccinated, I would be grateful to have the mandate. A lot of parents feel similarly, but I was struck by how many were aligned with Dyehouse’s line of thinking. I know parents who have complained about their children “being forced” to be masked. I wanted to speak with some of them about their decision. No one wanted to be identified by name or quoted. In public Facebook conversations, two of them said that their children broke down in tears at the news of having to go to school in a mask. Others say the masks hamper social life, hinder education by being a distraction, and keep students from understanding their teachers. Several told me the masks are making kids sick because they are breathing in the same carbon dioxide repeatedly, a claim that has been widely debunked. Doctors, nurses, factory workers, and others have long worn masks throughout the workday without adverse health effects. Many parents say their biggest issue is being denied their personal choice for their children. A common refrain is that some feel Beshear is enforcing the mask mandate for “a power trip.” Last year the governor was hung in effigy on the state-capitol grounds after issuing similar public-health mandates.
The situation is only made worse by the many elected officials in my state who seem determined to make masks a political issue. While our Democratic governor is begging people to get vaccinated and to mask up, Thomas Massie, one of Kentucky’s Republican representatives, joined two other members of Congress in suing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for enforcing a mask rule in the House of Representatives chambers. In July, Representative Regina Huff, a Republican who chairs the state House Education Committee, tweeted photos comparing Anthony Fauci’s encouragement to get vaccinated to the cult leader Jim Jones’s orchestration of the Jonestown massacre. Republican Senator Rand Paul recently had his YouTube channel briefly suspended because he was sharing false claims about the efficacy of masks, a punishment he welcomed as “a badge of honor.”
My grandmother had very little patience for political showboating, and I believe she would have been disgusted by the politicization of a virus that has now killed more than 620,000 Americans. I also know that she was a stridently independent and stubborn person who would have resented being told what to do. But any time I doubt that she would have supported masking, I think back to her tales of living through the 1918 flu epidemic as a child, of her belief that she had to help in the war effort, of her fears that one of her children might contract polio in the surge of the early 1950s. Maybe too few people today understand the necessity of putting aside one’s own comforts to help others. Perhaps our sense of community has suffered in the digital age. It seems to me, however, that most of the blame should go to politicians who care more about stirring up fear to defeat their opponents than they do about people’s lives or the economy. And I blame anyone who intentionally spreads misinformation to further their own agenda.
Refusing to sacrifice for the common good is an American problem, not just a Kentucky one; opposition to masking and vaccination is happening in such disparate places as San Diego, Phoenix, Portland, Kenosha, and New York City. A protest in Franklin, Tennessee, led to parents yelling at medical professionals who had spoken in favor of masking. One parent told them there was “a bad place in hell” for them. “We know who you are,” another threatened. “We will find you.” In Texas a parent ripped off a teacher’s mask, and in Northern California an anti-masker assaulted a teacher on the first day of school. In Los Angeles a reporter was attacked and one man was stabbed in an anti-vaccination protest. Likewise, a host of conservative politicians across the country is adding fuel to the flames with anti-vaccination rhetoric and legislation against masks.
When I witness the vitriol swirling around the slightly uncomfortable prospect of wearing a little piece of cloth throughout the day, it is easy to grow weary. I admit that I’ve had moments of “COVID rage” at those who are not doing their part. Yet I remind myself that despite the complaints of Dyehouse and other superintendents, most school administrators in our state and country are going forward with their school year professionally. In support of Beshear’s mandate, the Kentucky Board of Education unanimously approved requiring masks in all schools. Even though parents are gathering to protest the mandate across the country, their numbers have been small in comparison with the many others who have been thankful for the requirement, realizing that this is one way to get children back into classrooms.
I try to remind myself that most of us are looking out for our neighbors when I see the bantam-rooster blustering of politicians such as Senator Rand Paul. The majority of us—about 170 million, or roughly 62 percent of all Americans adults—are fully vaccinated as of this writing. In Kentucky, we are in line with the national average, with 58 percent of adults fully vaccinated. According to a poll earlier this month, 56 percent of Americans agree that masking indoors is necessary again.
Those who are unwilling to sacrifice a small part of their daily comforts for the good of our country seem to be the loudest right now. But the statistics show that they are not in the majority. Most of us are thinking of one another. My grandmother would be proud.