PROVO — Parents at a Provo elementary school are taking issue with disparaging social media comments Sen. Mike Lee made about precautions being taken to protect teachers and students from COVID-19.
Lee reacted to an Edgemont Elementary post on Instagram showing children sitting in class at desks behind three-sided, box-like plexiglass shields. The students are wearing face masks as is a teacher standing next to them.
“Kids are ready to learn with their new power shields — ready to be superhero learners (with masks and shields),” the caption reads.
Lee, R-Utah, mocked the “power shields” on Facebook, Twitter and Parler, a conservative social media alternative to Twitter.
“What the actual hell? If they’re already wearing masks and distanced, why the need for a “power shield”? (By the way, “power shield” = euphemism for “cage”). I’m sure that whoever came up with this idea had good intentions, but some ideas prove better on paper than in practice. This is mean,” the senator wrote Wednesday night.
Lee later updated the Facebook post, noting that the school deleted the Instagram post, and provided a screenshot.
On Thursday morning, the senator removed the posts from his various social media accounts and apologized. He wrote that he made the comments without asking about the unique circumstances that may have been at play in the classroom.
“It was a mistake on my part to post it, along with my flippant commentary. I have questions and concerns regarding the seating arrangement displayed in that photograph, but these are difficult times, that reasonable minds can disagree as to the best solution in any given set of circumstances, and that it’s not my place to make decisions rearming what’s best for a particular classroom. My comments ignored that fact, and — while this was not my intent — showed disrespect for the teacher in that classroom, along with parents and others who might have been involved,” he said.
Lee said he apologizes to the teacher and to any students, parents and school officials he might have offended.
Erin Goodsell, whose son attends Edgemont, said she and other parents talked earlier Wednesday about how “cute and fun” they found the school’s Instagram posts and how impressed they were with the effort teachers put into preparing their classrooms.
“To see Sen. Lee belittle that effort and attack my school was disappointing and, frankly, confusing since we are his constituents. He is supposed to represent us. I felt particularly awful for the teacher in the post.”
Goodsell fired off a letter to Lee demanding he take his post down.
“That you would use your platform and position of power to bully a teacher you disagree with, and use her and her students as pawns in a larger political battle you are waging, is dehumanizing and unethical,” she wrote. “Also, for the record, my son had a wonderful first day of school today and did not feel remotely scared or caged. So you can probably cut the drama a bit. The kids are OK.”
Lee’s post drew a flurry of mostly critical responses to what the senator wrote. Provo School District spokesman Caleb Price said he recognized some of the names as parents of Edgemont students.
“I can’t believe you didn’t at least edit the name of the school and the faces of the students. Super inappropriate and as a lawyer I would expect you to know better. Do you want your followers to harm this school? You should take this down and apologize immediately. You’re using kids and an elementary school to get attention at their expense,” wrote Goodsell, a lawyer who teaches cyberlaw at BYU.
Some posters sided with Lee.
“I agree with Senator Lee. The powers that be are conditioning us for the vax (vaccine) that will make them richer!” Karen Frei wrote.
Price didn’t want to address the appropriateness of Lee’s posts.
“I don’t think the district is really going to comment one way or the other on if we think he’s out of line or not,” he said. “But I will say that we’re just trying to do the best we can to make schools a safe and enjoyable place for the students to come and parents to feel comfortable sending their students to the school.”
The desk shields, he said, are one of many things the district is doing to make classrooms as safe and healthy as possible.
Provo district provided the “dividers” to all of its elementary schools to provide a little more protection between students, but teachers are not required to use them. The district, he said, is running a campaign to encourage face coverings playing off the idea that superheroes wear masks.
“The teachers kind of have fun with it to tie that together,” Price said, referring to the school calling the dividers “power shields.”
Students in Provo returned to school Wednesday.