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She Joined The School Board To Serve Her Community. Now She's In The Crossfire

Elaine Murphy's home in New Albany, Ind., is lined with family photos of her grandchildren. The president of the school board of the New Albany-Floyd County school district is a life-long educator. Schools were always her safe haven, but things are changing as school boards are tasked with making pandemic-related decisions.
Elaine Murphy's home in New Albany, Ind., is lined with family photos of her grandchildren. The president of the school board of the New Albany-Floyd County school district is a life-long educator. Schools were always her safe haven, but things are changing as school boards are tasked with making pandemic-related decisions.

Updated August 26, 2021 at 11:18 AM ET

In the small southern Indiana city of New Albany, school board meetings are normally nothing special.

The elected board members discuss, vote on budgets and other plans before the meeting is quietly wrapped up. But nothing prepared Elaine Murphy, the president of the school board of the New Albany-Floyd County school district, for the Aug. 9 meeting.

Crowds of parents and community members filled the hall at the district office. Murphy estimates around 188 people were there. One man held a flag for the Three Percenters, an anti-government militia movement. Murphy was heckled and called a liar among other names.

"It's sad to say that, you know, now when I see someone come in with a flag and a flagpole, I'm thinking, well, that's a potential weapon," Murphy said. "I've seen that before. And that caused some anxiety."

The main message behind the anger and emotion is clear: don't require face coverings in schools for students.

With no federal mask or vaccine mandate, this type of scene is happening across the country. In many states there are no local or state mask mandates either. Local school board members like Murphy are on the frontline of what is a health crisis at its core, and that's taking a toll.

Murphy is slender with short blond hair and green eyes. She is in her 60s and has dedicated her whole life to her sons, grandchildren and to serving New Albany's school kids — first as a special education teacher then a principal. New Albany schools were once her safe haven, but now Murphy and her family are worried about her safety.

On the day of the meeting, Murphy's son, Ryan Gunterman, drove two hours from Bloomington to be with her during the meeting. He's seen videos of how aggressive school board meetings can be these days. He took Murphy in his car so protesters wouldn't know her car and mark it around town.

"She lives a few minutes away from the hall where the meeting was," Gunterman said. "But we kept circling around the house for 30 minutes to make sure no one was following us home."

Now, Murphy keeps a baseball bat next to the door at home as per her son's request.

More politicized than ever

Many school board members like Charlie Wilson in Worthington, Ohio, question why public health officials are not making these decisions to protect school children in the middle of a resurging global pandemic.

Wilson says he is all for local control of schools, but the situation with the pandemic is different and it wouldn't set precedence for federal or state institutions to step in.

"This is a situation where it's outside of two things: it's outside our area of expertise. And secondly, viruses do not confine themselves to a school district," he says.

"I hope I don't come across as a hypocrite, but I really believe this is one time where state governors, and frankly, the federal government needs to step up and decide what is in the best interests of either our state or the country."

Wilson is the past president of the National School Boards Association and a school board member since 2007. He says the job has changed a lot. It's become so partisan that any decision he takes is deemed political and that's driving many people out.

"I'm just surprised at how many people I hear from, who have been board members for a long time, who said it's not worth it, I'm going to either resign or not run again this fall," he says.

Wilson, who is also a law professor, says school boards are made up of people who are largely volunteers or who get paid negligible amounts. They joined to do their civic duty — politics and ideology are not top of mind for most of them. But this seems to be changing.

Now, Wilson says, he sees more candidates than ever who are single-issue focused or openly partisan running for the coming school board elections across the country.

Wilson himself doesn't plan to run for office again. He says he wants to spend more time with his grandchildren. And the past several months have made forgoing the position an easy decision.

Over the past year, he had trouble sleeping. He would sometimes dream of a student losing a parent or a grandparent from a virus they caught at school because of a decision Wilson took. Still, that's not the worst part.

"Literally daily, getting hate emails and sometimes phone calls. And, frankly, occasionally people knocking on my door and threatening to do all kinds of things," he says.

Some of these people are his neighbors and former good friends.

More fuel to the fire: political tribalism, changing guidance and legal battles

School boards had to weather other heated partisan debates before like school prayer in the 1980s or sex education in the early 2000s.

Vladimir Kogan, a political science professor at the Ohio State University who studies state and local government, says the situation with masks is similar but political tribalism is at an all-time high in the United States now. Guidance since the start of the pandemic has also been evolving and changing. For instance, there are small scope studies from all over the world that offer different guidance on masking school children and that's adding to the parents' confusion and anger. And local school board members are thrust into the crossfire.

"In spring 2020, the governor's and all the states shut down the schools. But in Fall 2020, they didn't reopen the schools, they said, 'Oh, that's gonna be a local decision,'" Kogan says. "I think it's exactly this idea of blame-shifting, that no matter what you do, you're gonna piss somebody off. So you'd rather that another entity or another official make that call and get the blame from whoever is mad."

Murphy and her family are worried about her safety and after a recent school board meeting, she keeps a baseball bat next to the door at home.
Farah Yousry / WFYI
Murphy and her family are worried about her safety and after a recent school board meeting, she keeps a baseball bat next to the door at home.

In some states like Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, went as far as issuing executive orders making masks optional and in turn banning mask mandates in schools. Lucia Baez, 38, is a school board member representing district 3 in Miami-Dade county. Her school district defied the governor's order and required masks. Other counties did the same and Baez sees a silver lining there.

"I think the governor's orders and not just in Florida, but in other states, we see that they are trying to politicize [COVID-safety policies] in a way," Baez says. "But it gives me hope, when you see counties such as Broward or Alachua, or counties that are actually politically aligned with our governor, and they're still doing what's right to protect our children."

Now Baez's school district is up for a legal battle against the governor. And they're not alone.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a similar executive order banning mask and vaccine mandates. Joy Baskin, the director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards, says school districts are tangled in an unprecedented amount of legal battles, mainly over mask mandates.

"It is rare, extremely rare for a school district to have to become a plaintiff to ask for legal remedies from a court. Typically, school districts are more focused on legal compliance," Baskin says.

In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that people older than 2 should wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status. Adolescents younger than 12 are not eligible for any of the available vaccines.

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