Matt Shapiro's Marginally Compelling
Matt Shapiro's Marginally Compelling
How To Talk Your School Out of Covid Restrictions (with Karen Vaites)

How To Talk Your School Out of Covid Restrictions (with Karen Vaites)

Advice from child advocate Karen Vaites on how to make friends and influence school policies

About this time last year, I was anticipating the start of the 2021-2022 school year and watching with some level of horror as the issue of mandatory masking in schools became a political and cultural flashpoint. After months of reading and researching, I concluded that masks in schools were not appropriate. That was one of the most important things I’ve written.

Sadly, some places are still looking to bring back COVID mitigations in schools and disrupt a fourth year of schooling. As I’ve tried to grapple with this worldview, I realized that parents trying to stop this may need a blueprint for how to act on the restrictions hurting their kids. I asked around about who might be able to give advice and that led me to speak with Karen Vaites.

If you’re still fighting with a school district over COVID restrictions, I hope this podcast is helpful. Karen was wonderful to talk to, and I hope you’ll find this discussion full of practical advice for helping kids go to school as they should.

I’d also like to point to Viney Prasad. Prasad has been one of the most helpful doctors I’ve been reading in the last three years. He’s been a smart and grounded voice advocating for normalcy, and I cannot recommend him highly enough.

How To Make an Impact at Your School

To make this podcast a little more digestible and the lessons a little more visible, I’ve summarized the important points below:

  1. Connect with other parents. Twitter really is the most important place for finding new information, and it’s where many parents started connecting to organize to bring their kids back to schools. You can quickly find the few hundred voices who are leading the charge on evidence-based COVID policies as well as other parents and advocates you can work with.

  2. There is influence in numbers. Before you try to set up a meeting with your superintendent or principal, gather a coalition. It is easier to get a meeting with a school superintendent with three parents than it is when acting as a single voice. You will get a different reception as a group than as an individual. Make an effort to head to these meetings with as many like-minded people as possible.

  3. Be kind and show grace. We need to be respectful and polite when meeting with educators. No one wants to listen to someone who is taking out their anger on them. Fair or not, we all put up defenses when someone goes into attack mode. Don’t be the person that causes the decision-makers to get defensive.

  4. Lean on the existing evidence. Even though this pandemic has crushed faith in institutions and experts, people are still impressed with and moved by credentialed information. Because of this, be sure to make your case with credentialed evidence. The Urgency of Normal is an initiative driven by scientists and doctors that promotes the removal of COVID mitigations in schools and makes that case with an avalanche of evidence. Download their toolkit and lean on it as you make your case to your school district.

  5. It’s all about the kids. We’re not just trying to avoid the next mandate, we’re still winning hearts and minds. There are still fair-minded people to be won over who just haven’t heard the case made in a calm and clear way. Few are convinced by anger and frustration, even if those emotions are warranted. Centering the case around kids’ needs is still the best way to change policies and win partners.

Postscript: The Benefit of the Doubt has Become Counter-Cultural

This is my newsletter, which means I get to occasionally indulge in some more emotive frustrations. This is one of those moments.

My conversation with Karen was a genuine breath of fresh air. I love talking to people who want to push politics aside and talk about how we make decisions, influence people, and make the world better for our kids. That’s the important stuff.

But not even 24 hours after our conversation, the New York Times published this outlandish piece about how parents who objected to mask mandates and vaccine mandates were sucked into a horrible world of conspiracy theories. While Karen was talking to me about how we need to make friends and smooth over political differences for the sake of our children, the New York Times was finalizing an article about how people like me and Karen are part of an insane group of crazy people who don’t believe in science.

This is hard for me, but I imagine it is harder for my friends who are less political and want to focus only on the needs of their children. It’s enormously unfair to have a national newspaper slander them as crazy anti-science idiots even as they are trying desperately to bring people together with studies, evidence, and careful recommendations of credentialed experts.

Even the people interviewed for this story found themselves aghast at the narrative in which they became entangled.

There may be some shortcut for bridging the gap between journalists and honest individuals. If I knew what it was, I would do a five-part series on it to make it as visible as possible. I would pay Twitter money to promote it.

The “return to normal” vision is not a bunch of weirdos. It’s a vast swath of careful, intelligent individuals who want to create a smooth, clean path for children to walk through in this uncertain moment. While we have a vast range of political opinions, our singular focus is on making sure children are growing up in a stable world.

The stupid part of me wants the mainstream media to push these friends of mine out of acceptable left-wing circles. This is because I’m a horrible partisan who wants to suck all the smart people into my political orbit and leave everyone outside my political ingroup at the mercy of a skeleton crew of yes men who are afraid to make any statement that isn’t pre-approved by their political masters.

But the normal part of me remembers that the children in New York City and San Francisco are just like my kids and not pawns to be played for political benefit. American political parties are too broad and too strong for this kind of realignment. What the New York Times is doing is laying the groundwork to excommunicate a significant swath of people from polite society in blue regions.

This is, as Natalya noted, the death of nuance. It is increasing fragility in our society, which isn’t really noticeable until the moment when we suddenly need those strong bonds in a time of crisis.

This is why I’m glad to align with people like Karen who are working hard to unite us by appealing to our commonalities.

Disney Shorts: Tire Trouble (1943)

This is a great Donald Duck short because we get all the moodiness and anger that we expect from Donald without him being mean to anyone. Donald is out for a joy ride in his cherry red jalopy when his fun is suddenly interrupted by a flat tire that he must repair.

This being Donald, everything goes wrong. He can’t get the jack to work, he can’t get the inner tube to patch, he can’t get the tire back on the rim. The entire short is a nonstop cascade of funny mishaps at Donald’s expense. He is the personification of every struggle we’ve ever had to fix what is broken. He takes our frustrations and rolls them up into a 7 minute short so we can laugh at him instead of ourselves.

Matt Shapiro's Marginally Compelling
Matt Shapiro's Marginally Compelling
An honest attempt to parse data, wrestle with uncertainty, and suss out events in real time. Also cartoons.