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CASEY: Tea Party echoes from the Roanoke County School Board

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The Roanoke County School Board kicked off 2022 with a bang. Or maybe we should call it a shot in the foot, similar to a legislative faux pas that board members committed last year, too.

Tuesday, the board too hastily approved a resolution to drop student mask mandates. Then Thursday, members met again to repeal Tuesday’s resolution, after meeting with their attorney.

At the second meeting, most pledged to reconsider the measure after Glenn Youngkin is inaugurated as governor. Then, presumably, undoing the mask mandate will be kosher.

Behind that impatient legislating was one of the board’s newest members, Cheryl Facciani. The retired speech pathologist and mother of four won election from the Windsor Hills District in November.

She’s the board member who offered the anti-mask mandate resolution in Tuesday’s work session. (Typically those are handled at regular school board meetings, where there’s opportunity for public input.)

Facciani insisted on a vote after at least two other school board members gently suggested waiting. And even more remarkable than the resolution was the 6-minute 30-second speech she gave in support of it.

Facciani appeared to be reading a prepared text. The volume was subdued, not raised. But her delivery at times came across as snide, with whiffs of arrogance and sarcasm. Also, some of the content was factually deficient, if not disingenuous.

She began with, “It’s an honor to be here tonight, to be elected, and it’s a privilege to serve.” But the remarks quickly pivoted into a screed about masks, and devolved from there.

She included some zingers that seemed more appropriate for a comedy club routine or talk radio than a county school board meeting. In particular, Facciani bashed frequently changing social-distancing guidelines health authorities recommended and imposed as the pandemic has progressed.

“Over the summer, you could walk into a restaurant and have your mask on, and you sit down, you can take your mask off because COVID magically disappeared when you were sitting down. And I’m sure you remember churches were closed, but, you know, bars were open.”

That sounds like silliness from a Rush Limbaugh monologue, except with subpar delivery.

The guidelines indeed have changed with some nettlesome frequency during the pandemic. Is it possible that’s because scientific knowledge of the COVID-19 is changing daily? And because the virus is still evolving into more highly transmissible variants? It’s kind of a moving target. Under such circumstances, one might expect the pandemic-control guidelines to change along with the most up-to-date scientific knowledge.

It got weirder from there. Next, Facciani took aim at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also known as the CDC.

“To be clear,” Facciani declared, “the CDC is not a fourth branch of government. We have three branches of government if we go back to our eighth-grade civics class: legislative, executive and judicial. And the CDC’s actually a 501©3.”

Why did she bring up that “three branches of government” flourish? It came across as condescending. It’s doubtful the people in that small conference room Tuesday needed a middle-school civics refresher.

And to be clear, that last nugget about the CDC is untrue.

It’s a real government agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The CDC’s annual, taxpayer-funded budget is more than $6.5 billion. It’s not a 501©3 nonprofit organization like the United Way or a local food bank. (Some debunked internet rumors from May 2021 insist it’s a tax-deductible nonprofit corporation.)

Then Facciani said:

“The psychological damage that we’ve seen our students go through, and our children these past two years is really, truly beyond our comprehension. We have a worldwide epidemic of suicides, that’s irrefutable, and we have a huge surge of drug abuse among adolescents.”

With respect to suicides, a study published this past July in The Lancet, a respected international medical journal, found they didn’t increase in the pandemic’s early months in 21 countries surveyed. Another study released in November by the CDC found suicides in America dropped 3% in 2020 compared to suicides in 2019, before the pandemic.

Next, Facciani raised the possibility that masking young children could negatively affect their intelligence. She said:

“A recent study came out of Brown University, and it’s actually a really good one, if you haven’t looked at it, you should. And it demonstrates a demonstrable drop in IQ of 21-23 points and they’re attributing this to the result of masking, and in daycare and schools.

“Brown University is not a university that anyone should sneeze at,” Facciani told the board.

I looked at that Brown study. Here’s what its authors wrote:

“We find that children born before the pandemic and followed through the initial stages do not show a reduction in skills or performance, but rather that young infants born since the beginning of the pandemic show significantly lower performance than infants born before January 2019. Thus, our results seem to suggest that early development is impaired by the environmental conditions brought on by the pandemic.”

With respect to masks, the study authors added:

“Masks worn in public settings and in school or daycare settings may impact a range of early developing skills, such as attachment, facial processing, and socio-emotional processing.

“Unfortunately, we do not have direct or parent-reported measures indicative of parent or caregiver-child interaction, early media exposure, or physical activity to investigate the potential causative role of these factors.”

Translation: The pandemic has affected infants’ IQs, but not toddlers’ or elementary students’.

The Brown researchers didn’t even investigate whether masking negatively affects IQ, because they lacked the relevant data. The study attributes nothing to child masking.

There were other debate-worthy aspects of the speech, but by now you get the drift. Some of it was simple misinformation. Many good people fall victim to that. There’s a lot going around.

Monday morning I called Facciani and left her a voicemail about this column. And at noon I reached out via email. I was seeking more information about the quotes above. I got no response by deadline.

One thing Facciani neglected to mention in the meeting was another university study. Released July 28, it’s from the University of California-Riverside. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the peer-reviewed article last summer.

It suggests slower-witted people are less inclined to follow social distancing guidelines — such as wearing masks. According to the article, that’s because they have a lower capacity for “working memory,” one measure of intelligence. And that makes it harder for them to quickly and easily analyze benefits and costs.

It might be unfair to juxtapose that study with events last week among the Roanoke County School Board. But hey, I didn’t attend those meetings unmasked, like Facciani did. (From the video it appears about half the attendees were barefaced.)

You should watch that Jan. 4 meeting on YouTube. The interesting bits begin around the 3 hour, 8 minute mark.

The worrisome aspect is, parts of the meeting were reminiscent of Roanoke County Board of Supervisors meetings a decade ago, back when Roanoke Tea Party members showed up.

Remember all the Tea Party jabbering about how the Illuminati-run United Nations would take over zoning on Bent Mountain? And the bull excrement about flaming windmills? In retrospect that nonsense seems quaint and quirky. But it went on for years.

Misinformation doesn’t serve the interests of Roanoke County pupils — or democracy. And we saw glimmers of it last week, in a newly constituted Roanoke County School Board.

For the students’ sake, let’s hope it subsides rather than continues.

Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or dan.casey@roanoke.com. Follow him on Twitter:

@dancaseysblog.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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