By: Stephen Samuel Roszel VIII
The year is 2021. I am a man. As a man, I am declaring that I will live my life on my own terms. This does not mean that I have liberty to act in any manner without repercussions. I pledge to live life on my own terms while assisting my community with its needs, and not violating the rights of my fellow citizens.
As a man living on my own terms, I have great power. However, I must be responsible in my actions as a father, husband, teacher, and citizen. This means that I must lead by positive example and make sure that those around me are kept safe while being well informed. The other side of the coin is mankind’s natural opposition: government. Government, whether local, state, or federal, has great power. Power that we the people lend to them as the consent of the governed. It is not the government’s responsibility to keep the citizens safe from virus or disease. Instead, it is the government’s responsibility to protect and defend the constitution and make sure citizens keep their natural rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness intact.
I am a forty-year-old career switcher who spent his first full year teaching social studies in the pandemic chaos of 2020-2021. Although I was sad and disappointed that my first teaching year was turning out this way, I made the best of it, teaching virtually from home when schools closed and wearing a mask when they re-opened. I fully complied with all COVID-19 mitigation strategies, including receiving both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. I did this because COVID was a novel virus, for which we had very little data, and it was prudent to err on the side of caution for myself and my family.
I was recently terminated by Chesterfield County as an AP Government teacher for refusing to comply with the state mask mandate. Not only did I view the mask mandate as immoral, but something just didn’t seem right. Stakeholders like students, parents, teachers, and administrators that would be required to wear masks as a condition of employment were not given any data as to the efficacy of masks. Nor were any stakeholders given the time or opportunity to review or comment on these policies.
Throughout the pandemic, I had stayed on top of the news surrounding Covid and referenced the CDC, VDH, and WHO websites often to ensure I was as informed as possible. While appealing my termination with Chesterfield, I engaged in some deeper research that answered many of the open questions I had about the county and state mask mandates.
First, the utter lack of data provided by any elected or appointed officials that would necessitate the recommendation of mandating masks in all K-12 setting across the commonwealth. Secondly, the last-minute order from Dr. Norman Oliver, the Virginia Health Commissioner, shortly after the end of the emergency declaration and threats of legal action by the governor. Thirdly, the fact that each school district within the Commonwealth of Virginia received millions of dollars in grant money from the federal government at the end of May.
Between April 22 and May 23, all individual school districts were presented with the opportunity to apply for and receive grant money under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP). The ARP ESSER Grant allots money to support State Educational Agencies (SEA’s) and Local Educational Agencies (LEA’s).
There are many requirements that must be met to qualify for the ESSER grant money. These include creating a plan to return to in-person learning that follows “each of the CDC’s safety recommendations including: Universal and correct wearing of masks”. The Act stipulates that CDC guidance (even if it changes) must be adhered to through full year 2023.
Another requirement in acceptance of the ESSER grant is to create plans to address the social and emotional learning of students struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic. Though there are many positive aspects of social and emotional learning programs, I have seen first-hand that these lessons are often being used to introduce aspects of Critical Race Theory. One such example is when I was given a video to present to my homeroom that promoted the beliefs of Ibram X Kendi and his book, How to Be an Anti-Racist. (I found out afterwards that Chesterfield County paid $20,000 for Mr. Kendi to host an online seminar for teachers and students)
One final requirement of interest is the reporting requirement and feedback phase of the bill. Stakeholders like students, parents, teachers, and administrators that would be required to wear masks as a condition of employment or attendance were to be notified of the grant, the qualification requirements, and the ongoing compliance obligations each school district would have to meet. Unfortunately, the bill uses the Administrative Procedures Act under section 5 of the US Code to withhold the information and decision-making process from the public eye. Essentially, the federal government is using the pandemic as a backstop to help federally fund individual school districts while bypassing the state.
Though it is always nice when there is more funding for our schools, nothing comes for free. Are the citizens of Virginia ok with accepting millions of dollars for schools from the federal Department of Education with all of the strings attached? We need to encourage our local elected leaders to navigate these decisions with the help of the constituents that elected them. We should all strive for transparency and open dialog prior to committing to deals with any government agency. Local politicians need to trust their constituents to make good decisions for themselves and their families – given correct and accurate information.
This is where I will turn back to my termination as a Chesterfield County social studies teacher. Virginia is a “right to work” state. Chesterfield County had the right to terminate my terms of employment for any reason. When Chesterfield County mandated masks on August 10, I fully planned on complying until I could find similar, alternative employment. It was not until the Virginia Health Commissioners’ order of August 12, (three days prior to the start of teacher work week) that I decided I would not comply because of a sincere moral conviction. Even if I had accepted a form of accommodation, I felt it would still be a position of compliance with an immoral and unconstitutional mandate.
I decided to neither comply, nor resign. The recommendation of CCPS superintendent was termination. I took the county up on an offer to appeal my termination. There was an official hearing, very similar to a deposition, in which I was allowed to make an official statement and cross examine the county’s witnesses. In the process, I was able to get on record the Assistant Superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools admitting that his office did not look at any scientific studies or data regarding the efficacy of masks prior to recommending a mask mandate to the school board.
I decided to draw my line in the sand. I committed to pledge my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor in defense of the freedom for every individual to choose how to live his or her life. Sometimes this decision feels very lonely. However, I have found an amazing community of supporters from across this beautiful state that keep me motivated and remind me that I am on the right side of history. I am neither victim nor leader. I am a man, a husband, and a father. I will no longer shamefully bow down to a faceless mob. I would like to humbly ask that those out there who feel the same way take a similar stand. It will be one of the most frightening things you will ever do. But until more of us peacefully stand up for our natural rights, we will not be heard. I implore anyone reading this: declare that you will live your life on your own terms, and not that of the mob du jour.