Local Politics: New Albany school board's outlier, anti-mask position puts kids at risk

The home district of this Alive columnist chose not to impose even a partial mask mandate in schools, which could be a harbinger of more culture wars to come

Craig Calcaterra
The New Albany Intermediate School, 177 N. High St. in New Albany, Ohio.

Last week, Gov. Mike DeWine said that the return to in-person school for all students for the 2021-22 school year is "threatened" by the Delta variant of COVID-19. Since the legislature has hamstrung his power to mandate health and safety measures, DeWine repeated his and the Ohio Department of Health's recommendation that students who are old enough to get vaccinated do so and that all students wear a mask at school. He also did some begging, asking school boards to "at the very least, consider requiring masks."

Few Franklin County school boards needed to be begged. Some, such as Columbus, Westerville, Gahanna and Bexley school districts, have mandated masks for all students. Others, such as Worthington, Dublin and Whitehall, have mandated masks for all students from pre-K through the sixth or eighth grade, which at least covers kids who are not old enough to be vaccinated yet. While there are some districts straddling county lines to the south of the city that have declined to impose any mask requirements, for the most part, sanity and prudence has reigned in these parts.

There's one Franklin County school district that has chosen, however, to fall in line with the Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis view of the universe: New Albany-Plain Local Schools.

After much delay, the New Albany school board chose, a week before the start of classes, to impose no mask mandate on any students of any age whatsoever. In their communication to parents announcing that decision, the school board nodded to respecting "both sides" of the mask issue, without expressly saying that one of the sides is supported by virtually every single public health expert and physician in the world, and the other is unmitigated recklessness promoted by people who refuse to understand science.

While what goes on in New Albany is typically only of interest to lawyers, executives, financial advisers and retired dress-and-lingerie billionaires with questionable business associates, there are some normies who live out this way. One of them is your dear columnist who, for reasons related to a past life and some well-it-made-sense-at-the-time choices, moved out to one of the less-fashionable neighborhoods in New Albany back in 2005 and decided to raise a couple of kids here. I've wrestled with what it means to live in New Albany for many years — often quite publicly — and for the most part I've made my peace with it. Even if I hadn't, since my son and daughter are in their junior and senior years of high school, respectively, my time here is likely pretty short anyway, so I'm just sucking it up and running out the clock. As I am doing so, however, I'm seeing the beginning of a change here. And it is not a change I expected.

New Albany, being full of a lot of wealthy white people, has always been a conservative place, but maybe not quite as conservative as you may think. My precinct went 53% for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 57% for Joe Biden in 2020. If you look at the 43054 zip code as a whole, you'd probably be surprised to see how much blue is on that map, including a couple of precincts that are filled with those big Georgian houses and ubiquitous white fences. This doesn't make New Albany some liberal haven, of course, but it does speak to New Albany's political nature. It's a place full of Romney-Ryan Republicans who care a great deal about protecting their own wealth and power, but it is not anything approaching a stronghold of MAGA-style, know-nothing conservatism, the sort of which fuels anti-vaxx and anti-mask sentiment. Indeed, throughout the pandemic, New Albany's public officials and residents have, generally speaking, acted safely and responsibly.

Which is why the school board's decision to eschew even a partial mask mandate was shocking. So shocking, in fact, that I reached out to New Albany elected officials and asked them what the deal was. While I'll grant that my email was a bit, um, caustic, I was still disappointed that I didn't get any good answers.

Board member John McClelland, who has worked as a political operative for the Ohio Republican Party and as a private political consultant for many years, responded to me by saying that, while he respects that I do not agree with the board's mask decision, "we can all agree that we care for the well-being of our students." Actually, the entire purpose of my email was prompted by a decision on masks that made it plain we do not agree on that. But, hey, he told me that they were "monitoring the situation," and who doesn't feel better after hearing assurances like that?

More specific was board member Debra Kalinosky, a life coach and former Proctor & Gamble executive who, like McClelland and every other member of the school board, is bereft of the sort of public health expertise possessed by the Ohio Department of Health, whose recommendations they are ignoring. She assured me that they're monitoring infection rates and will change course if and when the no-mask approach proves unsuccessful. I responded by observing that I don't normally wait to put my seatbelt on until my car is skidding out of control and asked for an affirmative justification for the lack of a mask mandate, but received no response.

Other parents I know have asked board members whose views, if not the Department of Health's, they're deferring to in reaching their mask decision and have received no good answer. I can only conclude that the people with real sway around here are the anti-mask parents who have illegally put up banners on public property thanking the board for bucking scientific and medical expertise on the matter. In the meantime, nearly two in three age-eligible teenagers remain unvaccinated as school gets underway in Ohio, and none of them have anything approaching significant protection in New Albany schools. 

As I said earlier, what happens in New Albany is not particularly relevant for people who have the good sense to not live in New Albany. But what is happening here right now is, I suspect, a harbinger of things to come in other communities.

There is a movement afoot in conservative circles to train activists to open up new fronts in our nation's never-ending culture war in local school districts. The aim is to bring issues that have typically been fodder for right-wing media, such as opposition to Critical Race Theory and transgender rights, before school boards with the help and coaching of seasoned conservative operatives, attorneys and activist parents. This movement, which has caught the historically sleepy world of school board meetings off guard, has been remarkably successful in getting school boards to do things no one ever thought they'd do. Such as getting the school board in an affluent, highly educated, medically and scientifically literate community like New Albany to adopt mask policies akin to those in Alabama.

More:The Other Columbus: Canceling critical race theory won’t make America great

Because of the town's privilege and advantages, we here in New Albany get a lot of stuff before the rest of you do. Pretty walking paths. A robust fiber optic network. A Sheetz gas station. Most of what we get, you all will get eventually. I suspect that also includes an uncharacteristically retrograde school board that seems to be serving an agenda that doesn't serve you or your kids particularly well for reasons that are less than clear.