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A person holds a sign that reads “unmask the kids & teachers” during a protest at a board of education meeting. AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post

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I voted for masks in school. I worried for my safety after.

My story isn’t unique. What will this mean for future school boards? 

I was driving back from the grocery store when my daughter noticed a Jeep tailing us so closely it looked like it was touching our bumper. “Why is he doing that?” she asked. “It’s not safe.”

I thought I knew why, but I didn’t say anything. In my daughter’s mind, I’m a mom in an SUV in suburban Derry, New Hampshire, but to some residents, I am the chair of the local school board — and that board recently voted 6-1 to follow the state recommendation and that of our superintendent to require masks in schools. The move put us in opposition to neighboring towns and a very angry, vocal group of parents.

During the meeting, audience members heckled and questioned the validity of the local pediatrician while he was giving his presentation. Audience members interrupted board members, and then me, while we expressed our opinions about masks. Eventually, I paused the meeting, had the video feed cut, and let them keep yelling while I spoke outside with the police.

A woman with wavy brown hair in a white shirt smiles standing in front of a brick wall.
Author Erika Cohen.
Courtesy of Erika Cohen

A man in the hall told me to watch my back as I headed back in. I made sure not to walk to my car alone when the meeting ended.

My story is sadly not unique. You could replace my name and the town of Derry with school board members and towns across my state and across the country at meetings about COVID rules. Police have had to remove residents from some meetings and arrest rowdy ones at others. Angry parents have given Nazi salutes during school board meetings. (An audience member in Derry called our board Nazis.) Many board members have received threats.

After our hearing and the vote, one parent turned to the board and administration and yelled that we should be ashamed of ourselves. This was a common refrain in emails I received for days after the hearing. It perplexed me. Ashamed of what? Listening to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Association of Pediatrics?

The week this was happening, I received a package wrapped neatly in a brown grocery bag. It had a return address in Florida and was addressed to someone Russian with my mailing address. Too nervous to open it, I returned it to the post office. It turned out it was likely flooring material for my son’s pet tortoise, but the third-party sender on Amazon had put down the wrong name.

How does civility cross the line so far that school board members are worried about their personal safety? And what will this mean for future school boards?

Board members are community members, and often parents, who step up because they care deeply. Will fewer well-meaning community members run because they are unwilling to deal with the intensity of the backlash of a certain group of parents?

I hope this doesn’t happen. But I have lived in my town for 16 years and always felt safe until this past few weeks. I can’t deny that I have had second thoughts about my decision to serve, and I have been on the board for six years.

Obviously, I am unnerved. I am upset. But I have no regrets about the vote I made. We listened to the many parents who came to the hearing and opposed masks, along with those who expressed opposition in email. We listened to the many parents who emailed and supported wearing masks. We listened to the recommendation of our superintendent, and then we decided we agreed with her, the state, and the national experts.

It is my sincerest hope that as school reopens, parents stop to remember the lessons we teach our children: Be kind, be polite, listen to each other, and respect each other’s opinions.

I know it’s possible. After the vote, I got a worried but polite email from a parent I had previously corresponded with. I called her, and she, her husband, and I talked for about 20 minutes and agreed to disagree. Still, they offered to wait after the next school board meeting, where they planned to speak, and walk me out if I felt unsafe.

Erika Cohen is in her sixth year on the Derry School Board and currently serves as chair. She has two children, a sixth grader and a ninth grader, in the Derry schools. Erika works as an independent writer, editor, and ghostwriter.

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