At 11:20 a.m. Monday, an editor for the right-wing Daily Caller tweeted out a link to a radio interview with a woman from Loudoun County, Virginia, who claimed her child was being “strong-armed and intimidated by his principal and many others” for refusing to wear a face mask at school.
The interview was pegged to a major news event: Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order making masks optional in Virginia’s public schools, which went into effect Monday — and the lawsuit by seven districts challenging its legality. Loudoun is one county that is still requiring students to mask up in classrooms as the issue is settled in the courts.
The tweet linking to the interview with the frustrated parent eventually reached former Donald Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who retweeted it to his 100,000 followers.
Ned Ryun, the CEO of American Majority, the national group that trains conservative political candidates, tweeted that Loudoun County’s school board is “out of control” and is “basically threatening kids with suspension if they do not wear masks in schools. We need to make sure that there are consequences for these people.”
A GOP House Ways and Means Committee staffer tweeted around 1 p.m. that he “just got a heads up that Loudoun County schools are punishing kids who won’t wear masks by putting them in the equivalent of a rubber room without access to instruction. Teachers insisting kids wear masks regardless of the governor’s order and saying wait until SCOTUS decision.”
Hewitt linked to his interview Monday with Youngkin, who offered an email address for “parents facing reprisals like this policy for LSC.”
Benson linked to a local news article that quoted a high school principal echoing the district’s policy about virtual learning in the auditorium for maskless students.
The same article noted that “while many walked in without masks, more complied with the school system’s rule.”
The Loudoun county school board is out of control. Basically threatening kids with suspension if they do not wear masks in schools. We need to make sure that there are consequences for these people.
— Ned Ryun (@nedryun) January 24, 2022
Other than the flurry of tweets from GOP operatives, there’s been no evidence of mass chaos or suspensions over the competing mask orders — just endless parental squabbling.
A district spokesperson told HuffPost that about 200 students have arrived at school without a mask, and most ended up wearing one and going to class. That’s out of more than 82,000 students.
The chain of events on Monday demonstrates how the right has wielded the anger around COVID protocols and school curriculums for political gain.
In this case, a call to a radio show from a woman in Virginia spread nationally to top conservative pundits in just a few hours. But it became a bad game of telephone, growing more distorted as it quickly circulated.
Loudoun County has become a national case study for debates over whether students should have to wear masks at school — and also how they should learn about racism in the U.S.
That’s made the school district a target for fearmongering. Last year, Republicans, including Youngkin, alleged that a “gender fluid” boy, enabled by the district’s inclusive bathroom policy, had sexually assaulted a female student in the girls’ bathroom. But there was never any evidence linking the attack to the bathroom policy.
There was more controversy this month when Youngkin announced that one of his first executive orders would make masks in schools optional, setting off a debate about whether that’s the purview of the governor or of individual school boards.
In the interim, Youngkin has urged parents to remain calm and follow orders.
“I urge everyone to love your neighbor, to listen to school principals, and to trust the legal process,” he tweeted last week.
The spokesperson for Loudoun schools described the interim mask policy in an email to HuffPost:
“Students who are not wearing a mask will be asked to wear one. If they do not have a mask, one will be provided to them. If a student refuses to wear a mask, staff will meet with the student and contact their parent/guardian to discuss and identify the reason the student will not comply. If non-compliance is related to a medical or financial need, the school-based team will develop a plan of action to support the student in following the requirement.
Our protocol for students that refused to follow the school division’s mitigation protocol was to send them to a common area, such as the auditorium, where they could access the Schoology platform to continue their school work. They were encouraged to email teachers if they had questions and teachers stopped by throughout the day to help students as their schedule allowed. Bathroom breaks were given to the students as well as setting up special lunch periods to make sure they were fed.”
In other words, there’s no “rubber room without access to instruction.”
But what parent activist Megan Rafalski described to radio hosts on WMAL sounded like a version of that. She choked back tears describing what the district’s mask mandate has done to her elementary schooler. She claimed her son was sequestered in the principal’s office and that she was forced to wait for him outside in the cold.
“I’m sorry, I’m going to try to keep it together,” Rafalski told the hosts of “O’Connor and Company,” “but we’ve gotten to a point — it’s unbelievable what they’re doing to our kids. They won’t let my son go to his classroom because he won’t wear a mask, because he’s exercising his rights, and they’re forcing him to sit in the office. He’s been strong-armed and intimidated by his principal and many others.”
She later told Loudoun Now that her son was “clinically dismissed” from school at noon over his refusal to wear a mask. The district spokesperson told HuffPost it doesn’t comment on individual students.
Rafalski isn’t just a random parent — she’s the face of the district’s anti-mask movement. That’s earned her guest appearances on Fox News alongside her family to argue that masks are “depriving the children of oxygen [for] their brain to be able to develop properly.”
There is, of course, no evidence that masks do that.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.