In this latest installment of Public Discourse’s interview series, Editor-at-Large Serena Sigillito interviews Bethany Mandel, homeschooling mother of five, an editor at the children’s book company Heroes of Liberty, and a contributing writer for Deseret News. They discuss parents’ frustrations over masking children and transgender policies in schools—and what parents’ breaking point might be.
Serena Sigillito: You have been very involved in debates about masking in schools. Can you tell me some of your reasons for opposing masking? I know you also spoke out in favor of in-person schooling early on. So I wonder: did your views on masking evolve over time, or were you pro–in-person, maskless education from very early on in the pandemic?
Bethany Mandel: I was mostly in favor of it from very early on, when it became clear that kids were not effective spreaders. I mean, I was okay with it as a very short-term solution to get kids back in 2020. But as soon as vaccines became available to the high-risk, I was like, “Game’s over. Leave kids alone now.”
In May of 2020, my kids were doing in-person classes at The Little Gym, all day long. They were doing all-day camps. My friend owned The Little Gym. And she was trying to put bodies in the gym to show that kids are safe. She was trying to save her business, which she was ultimately not able to do, and they closed. But she asked me, “You have kids, you have a lot of them. Will you send them to show people that there are kids here, everyone is safe, and there are parents who trust us? We really need to send that message to other parents so that we can hopefully get people back in the gym.” And so I said, “Sure.” And it was a win-win for both of us, because I got free childcare, and she got bodies in the gym.
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So my kids were there, maskless, starting in May of 2020, all the way until they closed thirteen months later. They were there inside, no masks, sometimes tons of kids, never the same kids . . . it was really a beautiful respite for my kids of normalcy. And I’m eternally grateful that they had that. And we didn’t get COVID. In fact, there was never a case of COVID tied to the gym the whole time that they were there. And we had massive—I’m talking twenty-five kids—birthday parties there. Every time we had one—we had like five birthday parties there over the course of it—I would count down for two weeks. I knew everyone who was at the birthday parties, and nobody got COVID the whole time. During the spikes, during all of it, there was never a case of COVID tied to the gym, either our family or anyone else. And they were doing contact tracing. They knew where people were getting it.
So it became clear to me that everything that we were doing to kids was completely unnecessary. And I saw, frankly, how well my kids were doing, having this normalcy, and I was seeing how just terribly every other kid in this county was doing because they were denied so much in-person interaction and so much in-person learning.
I homeschool my kids, and so I don’t have a dog in a fight. And I’m very glad to not have a dog in the fight. But I have the privilege of not having a dog in the fight. And I grew up in a household where, if this had been me when I was a kid, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I had a single mother. And if this had happened as a kid, I would have hated school. I would have associated school with resentment and feeling suffocated. And that’s the association that a lot of kids are having.
I talked to a mom the other day. She said her kindergarten daughter is having a hard time learning how to read in a way that her other son didn’t. It’s because she can’t see her teacher’s face. She can’t see her mouth. So she’s having a hard time. And she’s becoming really frustrated. She doesn’t like school, because she goes, and she feels frustrated, she feels suffocated. They’re limiting the way that they’re able to interact in person there. And it’s creating this negative association with learning and school that will stay with her for the rest of her life.
And this is just one kid of millions who are going to have this association. So that drove a lot of my strong feelings on it, just based on my own upbringing, and knowing that this was going to be the situation for millions of American kids.
SS: I’m curious about the range of motivations among parents pushing back against masking in schools. I know there were people who were against masking from very early on, who have been involved for a while. But then I’m guessing there are also people whose views have changed on this over time as the situation has changed.
Personally, I’m more middle-of-the-road on this. From very early on, I thought it was super important to have in-person school. My kids’ preschool reopened in August of 2020, and they’ve been back in person since then. And they did mask, because it was mandated, and the teachers wore clear face shields. But if the kids played with their masks or couldn’t wear them properly, the teachers would just have them take them off and put them in their cubbies. So it wasn’t super legalistic, and I don’t think it instilled a lot of fear or anxiety or resentment in my kids. Up until last week, when their school went mask-optional, they were still masking at school. And I personally don’t feel like my kids have been traumatized in the way that a lot of parents talk about, especially those whose kids have speech issues. But it just seems very clear that, with the availability of vaccines, it just doesn’t really make sense to be imposing this on kids anymore.
BM: No, and it never made sense. I mean, we knew the data about how effectively kids spread very early on. By August of 2020, we knew how effectively kids spread. And we also knew what it was like for kids when they got COVID. None of this information is anywhere resembling new information. The whole point was “Kids have to wear the mask to save grandma.” First of all, grandma can steer clear. Right? Grandma could steer clear right from the start. But okay, I’ll grant you those two weeks to slow the spread. After that, there was never a conversation about what exactly we were doing and why.
What are we trying to do here? Are we trying to save hospital capacity? Are we trying to protect the most vulnerable? Why are we shutting down everything in order to protect a very small fraction of our society? Are there ways that we could target our protection? As it stands now, the most widespread mitigation technique is masking children in ineffective masks. There are no booster campaigns in nursing homes. There’s no push for that. If you look at what’s actually effective, and what’s not, we’re still not doing things that are effective. We want to look like we’re doing something. And the only people we can do that to are the people who have no power. And that’s kids. If we actually wanted to be saving lives, we would be in nursing homes doing booster campaigns. And we’re not. And that says something.
SS: Over time, have you seen a shift in the political affiliations of the parents who are speaking out against this?
BM: Yes. I found that a lot of liberal parents agreed with me, but they wouldn’t say so, because they were afraid of sounding too Trumpy. But over time, it just got to the point where people were like, “What are we doing?” And the people who were most willing to put their neck on the line and say that were parents of the kids who were really severely affected. The kids who had speech issues, the kids who are autistic: their parents saw enough harm that they were willing to risk their political bona fides to say so.
But it’s not just the kids with autism that are having issues. It’s every kid who is in a mask, but more importantly, who are with caregivers that are wearing masks. I’ve heard from a lot of preschool teachers and a lot of caregivers in daycare that kids are having a hard time recognizing their caregivers. They’re having a hard time forming an emotional connection with them. They’re having a hard time making emotional leaps as they should be at this age. And they’re having a hard time learning how to read, because they can’t see their teachers’ mouths. When you are learning the difference between “buh” and “duh,” it’s a very similar sound. The only thing that clues you off is that with “duh,” you put the tongue at the roof of your mouth, and for “buh,” you put your lips together. I’ve taught three kids how to read. I do not know how you can teach literacy without showing your mouth. I just don’t think it’s a thing.
And the CDC very quietly made a change to their masking recommendations, to say that people who are in early childhood situations and settings should be wearing clear masks for this reason. They did not at all publicize that. But they made a very quiet change. This is the kind of stuff that we should be having a national conversation about. But if they publicly said that, then they would have to admit that there is a downside to masking, and they have to make allowances, because this is affecting literacy.
The CDC changing their developmental benchmarks, on the other hand—that’s not a story. Like, it became a story on the right, but it was based on 2019 data. I’m not pointing to that as evidence, because I think that that was a little bit of fake news on the part of conservative media. But that data will exist. That data will emerge. You cannot cover the mouths of kindergarten teachers for two years and think there won’t be literacy consequences. There absolutely will be. And it will be for kids who don’t have parents reading to them at home.
SS: With the changes in the CDC developmental guidelines, from what I have read, it seems like the impetus for that was trying to do a better job of identifying kids who are at the highest risk and could benefit from early intervention by setting the benchmarks for acquisition of skills like walking and talking closer to the 25th percentile instead of the 50th.
SS: So we have this big mobilization of parents, which raises the questions about how this is going to affect things politically as we go into elections. What are your impressions of the overlap, or the similarities and differences between the parental pushback against masking and the conversations, especially last summer, about critical race theory in schools, which did seem to have big electoral implications. Do you think there’s going to be something similar happening with masking?
BM: I actually don’t think that CRT made as big a difference as people like to think it did in Virginia. I think what made the difference was the closed schools. More specifically—I’m sort of riffing a little bit off of friends who I know that are super-duper far left, who are really animated about this issue—it’s the fact that they have been lied to, and their children have been harmed, and there’s no accountability. There’s no apologies. They’re just barreling forward, and they’re just gaslighting people. And I think that will have electoral consequences. I don’t think that people care about CRT. I wish that they did. That would for sure suit my wants and needs as a conservative person who cares about such things. But I don’t think that the majority of parents care.
I do know that the majority of parents are very angry about everything that has happened, not just the masking, not just the closing schools, but the combination of all of that. And it’s the fact that the people on the school boards, and Democratic politicians, by and large, just refuse to admit that this was wrong, and that it had consequences. And when they refuse to do that, why on earth would anyone vote for them again? Because when whatever new variant comes along, who knows that they’re not just gonna do it all over again? There’s no accountability about what they did, what they perpetrated against children. And now, I mean, in Flint, Michigan, they’ve closed the schools. When are they going to open? We don’t know.
They’ve set up this new impossible way of public schooling where you can never rely on it. And a kid can be sent home with the sniffles. And there’s no real move to change things. Right before Thanksgiving, there were mental health days that were just awarded to the entire school system. And parents were left scrambling a week and a half before Thanksgiving break. You’re not just taking off Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, you’re taking off the whole week! That wasn’t in the calendar that you gave out in August. And now I have to figure out childcare a week and a half before Thanksgiving. How am I supposed to do this?
I mean, they claim it was to give their staff a mental health day, because kids have been acting out. Why do you think kids are acting out? Because they have no stability whatsoever, and you’ve just ripped more stability away from them. All of this is self-perpetuating. And I think that the elected official response should have been “Hell no.” Like, “The buck stops here. We have done enough to kids. We have taken too much away from families. We have made their lives too difficult. This is not necessary. This is a job you’re paid to do. And if you are not equipped to do it, then we will find someone else to do it.” And there was never that Reagan air-traffic-controller moment.
Parents want to know that their concerns are being understood, and that they are being heard. And that’s not what they’re hearing from elected officials.
SS: Yes, a lot of the anger seems to center on the lack of transparency and accountability. With both CRT and COVID measures, including vaccines, it seems like there’s a similar conflict between parental rights and autonomy versus top-down universal imposition without accountability. The core issue seems to be parental rights, and the need to be able to use prudence and discernment about what your particular kid needs.
The other big issue in terms of parental rights, of course, is the question of transgender children, and the prevalence of gender affirming medicine as a standard of care. That has a lot of terrifying consequences, as people like Abigail Shrier have reported. This seems to me to be like a huge flashing light signaling a lot of scary things coming down the pike. But I haven’t seen as much grassroots parental pushback there. Do you think that’s coming?
BM: Yeah, I think it will come in two forms. I think it will come with the school stuff, like with the swimmer Lia Thomas at UPenn. I think that you’re going to see that more and more in high schools, and people are going to get really pissed off that their kids are being stripped of the ability to get scholarships to college. I mean, it’s the parents of girls. Their daughters are going to be stripped of the ability to get a college scholarship because the male basketball player who’s playing on the girls team just took it from them. I think that there’s gonna be a lot of anger. When the Lia Thomas of the high school swimming world happens and starts taking scholarship money, we’re going to see that.
And there’s another thing that’s on my radar. This story didn’t make a big splash, and I’m honestly surprised. It happened in Los Altimitos, California. The story’s in the Washington Examiner. Basically, kids went on a public-school-sponsored sleepover at a summer camp facility. And the fifth graders came home, and the girls told their parents that there were biological male counselors in their bunks. I just heard from a parent in Chicago that the largest JCC, the Jewish Community Center, the largest JCC camp in Chicago, has the same policy. They’re grouping bunks according to gender identity and not biological identity. And this is state law in California. So this school program in California, they had no choice. If they didn’t put the male counselors in the girls’ bunks, they could have been sued. Because they would have been breaking California law about discrimination.
I suspect that this summer or maybe next summer, this is going to blow up. When parents of girls start hearing that there are biological males in their twelve-year-old daughters’ bunks, it is going to blow up. I don’t care what you call yourself, you’re not sharing a bunk with my twelve-year-old daughter. And that’s what you’re going to hear from parents.
SS: There’s just such a strong social taboo against questioning any of this. There’s so much policing around language. Mothers should be speaking out, but there’s so much fear of what will happen if you do. When you think about women’s movements in politics, particularly in the last few decades, there’s been an obvious assumption that women are going to be pro-choice and therefore liberal. And then in the Trump era, and the post-Trump era, with the mobilization of “pantsuit nation” and the surge in women at lower levels of government running for office for the first time, throughout all this, the left has been pushing the identity politics so hard. And there’s so much lockstep conformity. It’ll be really interesting to see if we are getting close to a breaking point where mothers will be ready to break out and speak against this new orthodoxy to protect their daughters.
All of this makes me think about previous historical mothers’ movements and maternal participation in politics. I’m thinking back to someone like Frances Willard, and that strain of first-wave feminism that was wrapped up in both the Christian temperance movement and the fight for women’s suffrage, for example. Do you have any other predictions of what we might see going forward or thoughts about how this moment relates to earlier movements?
BM: Are you familiar with Kara Dansky? Her book is called The Abolition of Sex: How the “Transgender” Agenda Harms Girls and Women. Another book is by Helen Joyce, called Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality. Same idea. They represent the feminist concern about this. And there are a lot of women like Kara and Helen who are opposing transgender ideology who consider themselves feminists through and through. There is a movement quickly emerging on the left that is filled with concern about these things. William Malone is a doctor, an endocrinologist, and he runs an organization called the Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine (EGM). And they’re more concerned about children, from the perspective of the kids who are actually getting the gender affirmative care.
SS: Yes, that tends to be more where I am focused, more along Abigail Shrier lines—the irreversible damage being inflicted on girls with gender dysphoria. Like, what are we actually doing to these kids?
BM: Yeah, the thing that no one is saying is, we’re sterilizing them. That is literally a human rights violation. We have troubled kids, whom we are then sterilizing. You don’t get more dystopian than that.
So there’s that angle. But Helen and Kara are more sort of hitting this from the angle that this makes all girls less safe and is unfair to girls. I first heard from Kara when I wrote an opinion piece about the Wi spa in California for the New York Post. A girl was flashed by a biological male at a Korean spa. At these spas, everyone is nude. And so when you open the doors to biological males, that’s a problem from literally the front door.
I’m also really interested by the Moms for Liberty movement. I think that this might be a model. It’s a really interesting grassroots movement. I think that that’s gonna have some impact in organizing moms. And they’re going to start having an impact at school boards. That’s where it’s going to be. They’re going to start swinging school boards.
I’ve been doing a lot of research and writing lately about how wokeness is destroying American childhood: the transgender stuff, the sexualization of children, how we disincentivize resilience. So I’ve been marinating in all this stuff for the last six months.
SS: Have you read Carl Trueman’s book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self? It’s kind of a philosophical deep dive, but it’s super fascinating and really relevant to these debates. He traces the way that our conception of what it means to be a person has evolved, and the way that our society’s knee-jerk reaction to ideas like transgenderism—the “social imaginary” is a term that he gets from Charles Taylor—has been shaped over time. He traces it all the way back to Rousseau through Marx and Freud and Gramsci, explaining the roots of the new left on a philosophical level. It’s fascinating.
People don’t think about what’s implicit in these slogans that sound so nice and inclusive. They just unconsciously accept them. I want to draw back the veil a little bit and be like, “Do you realize the premises of what you’re accepting?” If I put this in plain terms—say, the sexualization of children, or the need to dismantle the nuclear family—if we spelled out what is implicit in these things, the average mom would not accept them.
BM: Yeah, yeah. And that’s exactly what needs to happen as far as the transgender stuff. Because inclusion sounds so great. But what it really means is that campers can be in a cabin of their selection. Do you not see how that’s going to backfire on you? I don’t see how a grown woman who has once been a teenage girl, and who once knew teenage boys, can think that this is not going to be an astronomical, life-altering thing. By promoting inclusion at your summer camp, you are inviting a monster of a story.
SS: Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean, I’m Catholic. And after all of the child abuse scandals, I just think of all of the VIRTUS training that’s in place now, all of the standards and rules that must be followed. I mean, any church volunteer knows, you’re never alone with a child. And to contrast that with putting adult males in girls’ cabins. . . .
BM: Yup. And as a mother, I’m very conflicted. Where I would send my kids, this would never happen. But as a mother, for whom this has hit home, all these sorts of abuse questions, and violation of trust, this is on my radar. I am personally on the fence about whether I would let my kids go to summer camp, because all of these things are a concern of mine.
I mean, this is going to be the Catholic abuse story for Reform Judaism. There’s going to be a wave of rapes. And it’s going to be bad. Is there going to be any introspection about how their policies of inclusion have led to this? How they directly created a scenario in which this took place?
SS: But it’s not going to be confined to Reform Judaism. It’s the entire culture.
BM: Right. It’s going to be the public schools, it’s going to be everything. The denial of biological sex has implications.
SS: I hope that we’re not at this point, but I think about the social taboos that we’ve torn down one by one. I don’t want to be alarmist in terms of a slippery slope, but if you play out all of the implications of this understanding of childhood sexuality, . . . the pedophilia taboo doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
BM: Oh, yeah. The MAPs. Minor-attracted-persons.
SS: I just hope that eventually there will be a backlash, and it won’t just suddenly become socially acceptable.
BM: I think it’s gonna explode. But only after a lot of girls get hurt.