The story of the Safe at School Sit-In

Julie Russell-Steuart is a printmaker and activist who chairs the Iowa Democratic Party’s Disability Caucus. -promoted by Laura Belin

The Urgency

On August 11, a Wednesday morning, four moms of school-aged kids arrived at the Iowa State Capitol to put on an event called the Safe at School Sit-In. Two of them had met the previous day, but this was the first time everyone had met each other in person. The fifth member was anxiously keeping an eye on her Facebook Messenger and waiting for the live feed from the Iowans for Public Education Facebook page.

Twelve days earlier, Erin Dahl and Julie Russell-Steuart, both disability advocates, had discussed wanting to do something about the failure of virtually every state institution to protect vulnerable kids and Iowans in general from COVID-19. The next day, Erin saw a post by Brook Easton on Educators for a Safe Return to School Facebook group, saying how it was incredible no one had organized a protest yet, and tagged Julie.

The post turned up more moms wanting to take action. A group was quickly formed and the first of many Zoom meetings and probably hundreds of Facebook Messages started.

Eleven days later, they welcomed roughly one hundred and fifty parents, grandparents, teachers, doctors, and other professionals to sit-in on the West Terrace to protest Governor Kim Reynolds’ mask mandate ban (House File 847), which removed the local power of school districts to require masks, among other mitigation efforts. The event hit a nerve. So many parents were in the same situation: worried about sending their unvaccinated or vaccinated children into unmasked classrooms with the Delta variant exploding across the country.

The numbers of those planning to attend the event grew every day. By August 10, at least 200 had RSVP’d that they were coming, and more than 800 said they were interested. Journalists representing several news organizations were interviewing the group members and running stories.

The intense heat of the day underscored the sense of emergency and concern. It started off with organizer Gwen Fletcher-Doty welcoming everyone and announcing a short press conference at the top. The media was well-represented by major news outlets but were shy in asking questions, so several audience members lobbied questions meant to clarify risks to schools of COVID-19.

A short memorial highlighted the names of the educators and staff lost to COVID-19, 25 in all. It’s widely understood that the number is larger. As State Senator Claire Celsi shared her remarks and the names, pictures of them were shown. Down the steps in front of her, Each Pair Iowa, Iowa’s Mobile COVID-19 Empty Shoe Memorial, shoes of all kinds were placed to represent some of the Iowans the pandemic took from us. It was a stark reminder of loss, one that Reynolds has never acknowledged.

Medical professionals Dr. Glenn Hurst and Dr. Austin Baeth delivered impassioned critiques of the Reynolds administration’s handling of COVID-19. They described how the hospital system is already being stressed by the influx of COVID patients, and would soon have no resources to care for other illnesses or emergencies.

Dr. Megan Srinivas, an infectious disease physician and translational health policy researcher at the University of North Carolina who resides and practices in Iowa, detailed how the Delta variant’s behavior is projected to infect six times more people, and warned that more and more children are becoming seriously ill and dying. The data from other states beginning school already was grim. Iowa would be sending its kids into an environment without the proven tools to contain the virus, and she predicted some 3,000 kids would end up being hospitalized by the end of the trimester, and 80 percent of those infected within the first two months of school. 

The whole premise of the Sit In was to “listen to the science” and provide a platform for the medical experts and even public administration job holders like Joshua Kuhn-McRoberts, who is a Democratic candidate for governor.

The moms spoke. The second goal of the Sit-In was to take Reynolds to task for her dangerous leadership, or lack of it. On the capitol steps behind the presenters, a huge twenty foot banner demanded “Rescind the Mask Ban.”

Gwen read the speech prepared by Brook, the mom who could not be there. “The Governor needs to act like a grown-up and a leader who is looking out for the safety of the entire state. She is putting her agenda ahead of community safety. She’s bullying school districts, superintendents, and communities. Bullies never win, by the way,” Gwen read to punctuated applause.

Organizer Michelle Breitwisch put some muscle into it, “I say to Governor Reynolds, never underestimate the grit and fortitude of moms that know science and want a better future for our children. A future in which science directs our decisions, not politics and conspiracy theories.”

Organizer and Iowa Democratic Party Disability Caucus Chair Julie Russell-Steuart spoke about the higher risk of infection and long term COVID-19 effects on kids and adults with medical conditions or disabilities, ending by addressing Reynolds directly:

“I have a message for Governor Reynolds: you can change your mind. We all make mistakes. You can still do what’s right and allow us to protect our kids and ourselves by lifting the mask ban. If Republican Governor Hutchinson in Arkansas can call to lift it, so can you.” 

The audience was vocal in agreement. Most people carried their own messages with homemade signs and rested under the shade of the trees. There was an astonishing array of Raygun shirts. A few counter-protestors marched behind the event carrying signs. One woman continued shouting from the sidewalk long after the event was over. Her presence seemed to illustrate the persistent ignorance and willful rejection of the reality of the pandemic crisis. 

The Results

After the Sit-In, Governor Reynolds responded by making a rare Facebook post (unless you’re talking about State Fair week) repeating her mantra that “I trust Iowans to do the right thing.” She also delivered an impressive word-salad interview with Beth Malicki of KCRG-TV, which came off as incoherent. She could not answer the question, “Can a parent send their child to school with a mask on and expect the teacher to enforce wearing it?” Implicit was the assumption that a parent had a choice. Absent was the enforcement of that choice.

In the days that followed, the media, both local and national, honed in on and analyzed the governor’s unwillingness to consider a reversal.

The day after the event, the Science for Safe Schools group started a Facebook Group from the Facebook event attendees and brainstormed next steps. Since then, the Facebook group has become a place parents can find action items to do in their communities and school boards, and discuss breaking news related to that uppermost concern: “How are we going to get our kids and ourselves safely through this crisis, when our state leadership is actively against our safety?” As Brook Easton says, “Science for Safe Schools has been a hub for activism, empathy and support for moms across Iowa. We are no longer the silent majority.” 

The group of moms didn’t stop organizing. Two more press releases have gone out, they have continued to talk with the media, and coordinate with more groups, like Cassie Thompson and Cindy Waitt whose petition against the mask mandate ban has over 12,000 signatures. Erin and Julie filed an ethics complaint against the Republican state senators who passed the mask mandate ban.

The group was heartened to know that Council Bluffs parent Fran Mierzwa Parr filed a lawsuit challenging the mask mandate ban, naming as defendants Kim Reynolds, Iowa Department of Public Health Director Kelly Garcia, and Department of Education Director Ann Lebo. (You can read the whole court filing here.)

Gwen, Michelle, Julie, Erin, and Brook (inserted)

Voices

Julie asked everyone: What brought you to take action or why was the Sit-In important to do?

Michelle Breitwisch: “I realized that if I didn’t do something drastic, nothing would happen.  We would all still be complaining about IDPH’s terrible guidelines, the governor’s inconsistent messaging and gaslighting, and the legislature’s dangerous maskless mandate. We would be sitting here sending our kids to school without fighting back. Plenty of people have spoken out, but our event lit a fire in people’s bellies. We brought communities from all across Iowa together and gave them a venue to speak on camera and make their voices heard. People felt empowered. I felt empowered. It was tangible and real and I was no longer screaming into a void that day. I don’t give up and I don’t throw my hands in the air. I look for solutions and create them if I am not seeing them happen. This was no different, except lives are at stake.”

Brook Easton: “I have a mantra that I live by, “action beats anxiety.” It was apparent that our leadership wasn’t going to help mothers, children and educators return to school safely this year. In fact, they are hell-bent on making it as heartbreaking and difficult as possible. It was time to take action. The funny thing about taking action is you never feel like you can make a difference as just one person. But all it takes is one person to get the ball rolling. So, when I put a call out on the Iowa Educators for a Safe Return to School Facebook Group asking about a rally, or a protest to get the mask mandate ban rescinded, I never expected the outpouring of support. 

Moms get shit done, and that’s exactly what we did. Five of us came together from different parts of Iowa over Zoom to plan and execute a sit-in. “You won’t change her mind,” people told me. I didn’t need to change her mind, I needed Iowa to get attention. I needed other moms, who are terrified to send their children to school right now, to know they are not alone.”

Erin Dahl: “My husband was at school when he called to tell me to remain calm, but in the middle of the night the legislature passed a law that we can’t make the kids wear masks. He was in the weightroom with 180 kids a day. But no, surely the kids and parents would pull their kids right out…

I’m so grateful the group has given me a way to try everything possible, things well beyond my capabilities and create a movement of people who care about the disabled and medically vulnerable. It’s the first time I feel seen as a disabled person. Not the facade, the real me, gimpy, and messy and still working on me, but you put up with me anyway. Thank you so much. You ladies saved my soul.”

Gwen Fletcher-Doty:I’m a parent of 2 elementary students.  I joined up with the other 5 Science for Safe Schools moms because I’d been down a rabbit hole trying to get answers.

After the legislation that, among other things, banned school districts from implementing mask mandates, was signed into law, I tried to find out what it would take to get a reversal (even a temporary reversal) of that legislation.

After being home and participating in online learning for the last year and a half, we wanted to be able to safely send our kids back to school in person. But, since they are under 12 and not yet eligible to be vaccinated and the governor of Iowa cannot find enough “data” to understand that masks help protect against Covid and that masking up is a form of compassion and kindness towards others, the children in Iowa will not be safe from Covid while at school.

In my quest, I’d spoken with local representatives, IDPH, local public health departments, the governor’s office, and the law library. When I saw Brook’s post on social media for a possible event, I knew that was what had to be done.

This group of parents, guardians, and community members has kept me from feeling alone and powerless. We have now all joined forces and we will continue to raise our voices and lift each other up to let everyone know that ALL children need to be Safe at School.”

Julie Russell-Steuart: “Last fall, before there was a vaccine, I watched and worried as cases climbed. My teen was in virtual school, but struggling. We had an opportunity to come back to class, which was right after the two weeks of the entire school going online around Thanksgiving, due to the surge. My anxiety over that was sky high, but at least masks were required. I wanted to do an action of some kind with others, but it was like trying to focus on a moving stream. No one felt ready. This changed completely over the summer as school plans came up. With vaccination rates lagging and no mask mandate, and the sheer outrage, fear, and disappointment of watching our state leadership contribute to more illness, death, and disability, I knew it was time to act. I had been in contact with Erin Dahl before and reached out to her again to brainstorm. Finding everyone else on social media, with each person’s considerable skills contributing to this event, has been amazing. Working together we have power.”

Science for Safe Schools Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/539659640614524/

Purchase Raygun Tee “Science for Safe Schools.” Proceeds currently go to the legal expenses of lawsuit filed by Fran Parr against the mask mandate ban
https://www.rayguncustom.com/collections/science-for-safe-schools
Disability Caucus of the Iowa Democratic Party Facebook Discussion Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/288824358996979/
Official Caucus Page: https://www.facebook.com/The-Disability-Caucus-of-the-Iowa-Democratic-Party-109738377485846/

Speaker pages

Megan L. Srinivas, MD MPH https://twitter.com/yourlocaliddoc
Dr. Glenn Hurst is running for Senate. https://twitter.com/DrGlennHurst He’s also a contributing writer for this site: Dr. Glenn Hurst
Dr. Austin Baeth https://twitter.com/desmoinesmd
Joshua Kuhn-McRoberts https://twitter.com/Josh2022Iowa
All Photography by Brandi Webber, who is running for Des Moines City Council Ward 3 https://www.brandiwebberforcitycouncil.com/
https://twitter.com/brandiDSMward3

All Photography by Brandi Webber, published with permission.

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