Shawnee resident Angela Gantzer, right, who has two children in Shawnee Mission schools, said improper decisions to conduct classes remotely and require masking for in-person instruction undermined education for students during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Sally Roth Hemmer said her testimony to a Kansas Senate committee about government overreach during the COVID-19 pandemic was offered on behalf of parents fearful of losing jobs or having children retaliated against after speaking out themselves.
Hemmer, whose father Charles Roth served in the Legislature until 2013, told the Senate Judiciary Committee the mask mandate ordered by the Salina school district was in place until February despite lack of a companion edict by Saline County.
“Our children suffered daily,” Hemmer said. “As a parent, we have every right to be furious. This was purposeful bullying of our children sanctioned by the district.”
Hemmer alleged Salina school board members, district staff and medical professionals met behind closed doors as an advisory committee to consider health trends and determine how to proceed during the pandemic. The public should have been part of those pivotal conversations, she said.
“I am concerned that is a breach of open meetings,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican. “That is an issue of concern.”
Dozens of individuals submitted written or oral testimony Thursday to the Senate committee, which plans to dig Monday into Senate Bill 541. Aim of the legislation would be to place in state law limitations or prohibitions on locally elected boards for public schools, community colleges and technical colleges on masking, contact tracing or vaccination “passports.” The bill would incorporate financial sanctions related to disruption of businesses in a health emergency. Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to consider a bill limiting authority of the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment during health emergencies.
There was no opponent testimony taken by Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican who chairs the committee and is a candidate for attorney general.
“The mandates have impacted our family personally. It’s important we stand up for our rights,” Warren said, pausing more than once after becoming emotional. “You have been heard. We face a lot today in our country from the left and I will say quite frankly in all areas.”
Of those testifying, one after another urged the Senate committee to create laws forbidding school boards as well as city or county governments from imposing their will on an individual’s right to make health decisions. They referred to issues of liberty and freedom and spoke of “bodily autonomy,” a term anchoring arguments by opponents of legislation restricting access to abortion.
Overland Park resident Shara Collins said Gov. Laura Kelly and officials in Johnson County government put people “through absolute hell” with pandemic mandates that chipped away at a person’s right to decide about masks and vaccinations. She said testing was designed to produce false positives and give rise to “mass hysteria” in the public.
Kansas accepted billions of dollars in federal aid in return for violating civil rights spelled out by the U.S. Constitution and the Kansas Constitution, she said.
“You have zero authority too make any decisions on my personal health,” Collins told lawmakers. “I’m politely telling you to nullify all legislation regarding any kind of regulations over my body and my personal medical choices.”
Kathryn Andries, a Shawnee resident who works as an educator, asserted “countless” reports demonstrated masks to be ineffective against coronavirus. She also said corporations seized upon the pandemic to encourage government restrictions and make use of technology to monitor the population.
“Technocrats are behind these mandates,” she said. “This is about a technocrat takeover of every aspect of our lives. They demand the activity of every citizen be continually controlled and surveilled.”
Lied to and bullied
Angela Gantzer, who is the mother of two children in the Shawnee Mission district, said the governor shouldn’t have moved public schools to an online format because students with disabilities found it impossible to participate virtually. When in-person classes resumed, she said, mask and quarantine requirements enforced by school districts further undermined the ability of students to learn.
“We know so much learning was lost during COVID,” Gantzer said. “COVID has been a scary and deadly disease for some. However, our children never should have been the ones to carry the weight of potential spread in our community.”
Atchison teacher Monica Beien said the public school district consistently made decisions that created barriers to student academic success. Actions by the school board beyond scope of their authority forced school “shutdowns,” mask directives and quarantine rules that added to students’ problems with social interaction, she said.
“School board members bullied students,” Beien said. “Students and staff have been lied to by administrators.”
She said she endured a backlash after responding on social media to an opinion column written by family physician and Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison Republican.
“This was the beginning of the retaliation, harassment and bullying against me,” Beien said. “I am fearful of continued retaliation, including not being offered a teaching contract for next year.”
Journalists, Karl Marx
Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican who spoke last year at a Johnson County anti-vaccination forum, said the problems with local government overreach wouldn’t be fixed quickly. It’s important for the type of people who testified at the Senate committee hearing to keep the political pressure on officials at all levels, he said.
He said another issue was reluctance of journalists to report on the concerns of people who don’t appreciate mask, social distancing, testing and vaccination mandates.
“The press, in general, has tended to ignore this side — the people actually living these stories,” Thompson said. “They seem disinterested in knowing this side. It’s frustrating, angering to me.”
No Democrat on the Senate committee posed questions to the people testifying about what went wrong in schools and other areas of government during the pandemic.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, said it was important Kansans learn more about liberals working against good government. He said it was important for Kansans to absorb ideas of 1800s German philosophers Karl Marx, who wrote about political theory and socialism, and Friedrich Nietzche, who published criticism of European morality and religion.
“We’re in a time in our country,” Pyle said, “you better know what you believe. You better know what the enemy believes. If you haven’t got a ‘Communist Manifesto’ and you haven’t read or studied Marx or Nietzche, you need to.”
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