Anti-mask, Anti-vaxx Parents and Magical Thinking

Writing on the Wall
9 min readJan 31, 2022


When I was three or four, I was afraid of the smoke alarms in our house. Because I was too young to understand cause and effect, I believed that the presence of a smoke alarm meant we would have a fire. I didn’t understand that doing something to prevent something from happening didn’t mean that thing would happen, or that prevention meant that thing was less likely to happen, not moreso. No amount of reasoning from my parents could convince me otherwise I thought the risk of fire would go away if we just got rid of the smoke alarms.

Like Reasoning with Spoiled Children

I have posted on this blog before about how baffling it is for educators to try to reason with parents who want schools open, but are opposed to getting vaccines for themselves or their children, but are also opposed to having their children wear masks while at school. Not unlike toddlers who refuse to put on their shoes, but then also refuse to put on their sandals — but then complain when they aren’t allowed to go outside. It’s almost like they want to pretend that COVID doesn’t exist. Or they want to wave a magic wand and transport themselves back to February 2020 so they can go back to living the lives they had in the “before times.”

Image source: Strategies for Healing

What Are Their Demands Really About?

Many of these Karen types will clutch their pearls and cry, “but what about the children?” They will go on about how their children deserve “normal childhoods” and about the “mental health” and suicide rates of children kept out of school — never mind that mental health and suicide rates were already high before February 2020. They seem to forget that for millenia, the primary unit of socialization was the family — going to school for 8 hours a day wasn’t common in most communities until a little over 100 years ago. These parents will insist that there is no evidence that wearing masks in schools reduces rates of COVID transmission when there is a lot of evidence. They will argue that closing schools or quarantining children hurts all those “other” children who need school lunches or other services provide, never mind that many students of color and their families have preferred learning at home. It’s almost like some more privileged parents don’t want to admit the real reason they want schools to stay open with NO requirements for vaccines or masks: their sense of exceptionalism, their entitlement, their political ideology resulting from brainwashing from far-right echo chambers, their personal preference and convenience, and — let’s say it for what it is — the desire for free babysitting. Everyone else’s health and safety be damned.

Why Many Americans Cannot Handle Any Situation That Doesn’t Make Them Feel In Control

In yet another Twitter thread in which nice white parents insisted that schools stay open — with no vaccines or mandates or COVID testing — because their children DESERVE a “normal childhood” (and having to learn at home, online and/or with their parents, is apparently just too psychologically damaging). But it’s not really about their spurious arguments; this is about magical thinking. America’s consumerist culture, coupled with its culture of “I got mine” hyper-individualism, has brought up generations of people to believe that they deserve to get whatever they want, whenever they want it, and that they should never be inconvenienced or required to change their own behavior. If that means that other people, like teachers, have to absorb the costs, the risks, or take their abuse, that’s another feature of the system. They are used to — and feel entitled to — a consumerist system where there is always a convenient scapegoat who has less money and power that they can blame. The decades-long underfunding of public schools and media attacks on public school teachers have ensured that teachers now get the same kind of low pay and abusive treatment that service workers do.

People who have internalized this system and benefited from it are completely unprepared to handle a global pandemic. They are overgrown children, so their brains simply can’t handle it. They are not used to having to take responsibility for the welfare of anyone else and view any request to make an attempt as an imposition on their “freedom.” They are not prepared to respond to changing global conditions because they have never had to adjust to inconvenience or go outside of their comfort zones. Their fast food order has always been ready and their favorite brand of toilet paper that was created by cutting down an old growth forest in another country has always been on their shelves. If it wasn’t or if it took too long, they demanded to talk to the manager.

Magical Thinking — Deny COVID Exists, and It Will Go Away

The reasons for these entitled parents’ unreasonable demands become apparent in these parents’ child-like magical thinking. They can’t process the endless risk fluctuations of being in a global pandemic, or the fact that it has created inconveniences for them and asked them to change their behavior. So they demand a “return to normal.” If they don’t get their way, they demand to talk to the principal, then go above that person’s head and storm school board meetings and make threats . Or they fret about the “mental health” of the children (most of whom are adjusting just fine) as a form of narcissistic projection that’s really about the fragility of their own mental health and their inability to adapt. As if a global pandemic is going to capitulate to their shaking fists and their all-caps demands on social media. As if other workers who serve them and their families should feel obligated to do what supports their delusions and makes them feel safe and comfortable even as we all deal with COVID.

Like children who confuse cause and effect, they believe that the whole world will “return to normal” if they deny that COVID exists. Since wearing masks presents a constant, daily reminder that we are still living in a global pandemic, they refuse to wear masks. Now, many aren’t just refusing to wear masks but are demanding that no one wear masks because they don’t want to see the reminder every time they go out.

Twitter post reading: “I asked my 3 kids last night and asked IF we could move and go to a school where ZERO kids are in masks, should we do it? Initially, all 3 kids yelled YES PLEASE. 3rd grader thought about it and said he’d miss his friends too much. 1st graders want to get away from masked kids.”
From “Concerned Parent” thread on Twitter

Some of these “concerned parents” are even demanding that their children be segregated from the “mask-wearing children” so that their children don’t have to see a mask, ever, when they’re at school. They do the same with vaccines, because getting a simple shot would be another reminder that we’re still living in a COVID world. Worse, it reminds them that their “immune systems” might not be enough and that they could still end up dying in a hospital while on a ventilator. Instead, they displace that anxiety onto the vaccines themselves, insisting that vaccines — not COVID — are what will make them sick. Choosing whether or not to get a vaccine at least gives them a choice, which returns a modicum of a perception of power — like a child who feels more empowered by “choosing” to not wear a jacket on a cold day but then whines when they get cold.

When Denial Doesn’t Work, Blame Someone Else

When people who think like children are not able to reconcile their discomfort or fears, they look for someone to blame. I blamed my parents for putting up the smoke alarms. Similarly, parents and Republicans (with no push-back from Democrats) are returning to a familiar scapegoat and blaming public schools and teachers. None of this is surprising given that they have been blaming teachers for every social ill for the past three decades. COVID provided the perfect set-up for them to attack or blame schools no matter what they did or didn’t do. Following the same pattern of making ever-increasing demands, while cutting funding, and then blaming teachers for “not doing their jobs,” schools were told to open during a pandemic, but given no resources for the ventilation, sanitation, social distancing, or wearing masks that the CPC had recommended. Worse,our national and most state governments refused to be proactive about making policies, and punted to schools to fight the battles they didn’t have the backbone or political will to fight. Then Republicans politicized mask wearing and vaccines, so many of their followers refused to take even these few basic steps to help ensure school safety.

As some of us predicted back in Fall 2020, that left schools in an impossible position. If they required masks or other safety measures, parents would attack them — sometimes even by making public threats at school board meetings or by assaulting principals or teachers. If schools didn’t follow CDC guidelines, they were opening them up from attacks from parents who had higher safety standards, plus lawsuits if any children got sick or died after being infected at school. If schools stayed open, they could be accused of being reckless. When they ended up having to close due to COVID spread and staffing shortages, they got blamed for not being able to stay open.

Right on cue, the same parents who had refused to follow rules around masks, vaccinations, and social distancing blamed schools when schools had to close. What bigger reminder that life isn’t “back to normal” and that we’re still in a pandemic that has exceeded your attention span than a closed school? And how are they supposed to go back to work when their kids are at home, learning through computer screens (or not)? Also right on cue, the same deep-pocketed corporate interests who have been attacking public schools for decades — with the goal of privatizing public education to increase corporate profits (and also bring religion into education and re-segregate schools) whipped these frustrated parents into a frenzy with a huge media blitz and by bankrolling astroturf “concerned parent groups” as they picketed schools, stormed school board meetings, and threatened elected officials and schools.

This “concerned parent movement” joined with the conservative fed “controversy” over Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the backlash against schools has been fierce. The same parents who were calling teachers heroes in March 2020 are now accusing them of “sitting on their asses” and “refusing to go to work.” Never mind that “pivoting” to online instruction on no notice or having to teach “hybrid” classes to make the people who insisted on keeping schools open happy while also teaching all the students who were quarantined or couldn’t safely come to school online was far more difficult, time-consuming, and stressful than teaching in person ever was. They further ignore that teachers were never compensated for the unpaid overtime.

Tweet reading in part: “It’s so bizarre how teachers decided that children weren’t important and they didn’t need to show up for them.”
Tweet from “AConcernedParent” 1/30/22

Blaming teachers and schools give people who were frustrated by the endless, shifting, requirements of dealing with COVID an outlet. It also conveniently plays into the hands of the neo-conservatives who have been trying to privatize public education for decades. These frustrated parents were an easy target for a media blitz, which the deep-pocketed privatizers were happy to fund. Now these parents, who think they’re “advocating for their children’s rights” (to not wear a mask? really?) are playing right into the privatizers’ hands by demanding that public schools close down in favor of charter schools or vouchers for private schools, which never had to follow the same safety and accessibility laws that public schools do.

People who want to get a preview of what a disaster capitalism educational system might look like should read about what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Parents have lots of “school choice,” but also a lot of instability. Some schools close down overnight. Others are plagued with scandals as the private administrators pay themselves six-figure salaries and buy themselves expensive cars or computers while the children they were supposed to serve never get the services that were promised. Lord help the families whose children are people of color, have disabilities, socio-emotional needs, or learning needs. Charter schools aren’t required to serve those populations, so their children get shuffled from school to school. The same goes for children who don’t test well — if the “currency” used to evaluate charter schools is test scores, there is no incentive for serving students with low test scores. The same goes for students who are viewed as “disruptive” if they are not compliant enough to follow KIPP or Success Academy-type schools’ rigid rules.

Who Is Going To Step Up and Be the Adult?

My parents kept the fire alarms up. As the adults, they knew what they needed to do to keep our family safe. Any decent parents or teachers know that, while children’s feelings matter, not everything with children can be a negotiation, and not everything you say or do will make them happy. Sometimes their safety is more important than their preferences. We need to trust people who can still think and act like real adults to make the decisions about public safety and school safety during a pandemic, rather than giving in to the vocal minority of spoiled, entitled parents who throw tantrums and stamp their feet.



Writing on the Wall

Suzie Null is a former middle and high school teacher and professor of Teacher Education. Follow her on Twitter at WritingontheWall @NullSet16