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Tony's Take

Messenger: Time for school leaders to stand up to political bullies over pandemic policies

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Missouri University system President explains new budget

University of Missouri System president Mun Choi pauses a moment on Friday, June 2, 2017, before addressing system's budget and upcoming layoffs at Memorial Union on the Columbia campus. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

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Nearly two years ago, University of Missouri President Mun Choi issued a shocking statement to his employees that was meant to tamp down some simmering dissent related to his authority.

“If you are a leader, a senior leader at the university, and you don’t agree with the philosophy of the university or you don’t trust the motivations of the senior leaders, then I think you should leave,” Choi said.

Some university leaders had expressed dismay over Choi’s handling of a dispute over a Thomas Jefferson statue on campus. Some students wanted it removed because Jefferson was a slave owner. Choi spoke those words during a Zoom meeting, because the COVID-19 pandemic had shut down most in-person meetings and classes.

That pandemic has hit a new, dangerous phase, with the omicron variant spreading like wildfire. Every day brings a new record in terms of cases and hospitalizations. Health care facilities are crowded and they are facing a true emergency, even though Gov. Mike Parson has decided on his own that one no longer exists.

Responding Tuesday morning to the reality of the rising numbers and hospitalizations among his students, staff and the communities where his campuses are situated, Choi did what a responsible leader does. He went to his bosses, the University of Missouri Board of Curators, and asked the board members to approve the same sort of limited mask mandate that helped the university system get through other phases of the pandemic.

Post-Dispatch columnists Aisha Sultan and Tony Messenger discuss continued attempts by local, state, and federal government agencies to battle the pandemic.

In a vote tilted more toward Republican politics than public health, the leaders of the state’s flagship research institution said no. Choi’s bosses, the people who hire him, who set policy at the University of Missouri, the “senior leaders,” of the state’s largest public university, said no to science, no to public health, sending a message that they don’t even respect the research conducted on the campuses they are entrusted to lead.

They are hardly alone.

The night before, in Wentzville, Superintendent Curtis Cain, the reigning superintendent of the year in Missouri, asked his board of education to reinstitute a mask mandate. In Wentzville, and in nearly every public school district in the St. Louis region, chaos reigns as COVID-19 has devastated staffing. Teachers, administrators and support personnel are hospitalized or quarantined; there aren’t enough substitutes to handle classes. Some districts went to “mask optional” policies after threats of frivolous lawsuits issued by Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is using the pandemic as a political launching pad for his run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

Cain’s board, like Choi’s, told him no. Let the kids get sick. Never mind that pediatric hospitalizations are breaking records. No mandates, they say, repeating the ridiculous mantra put forth by Schmitt and Parson.

Politics is literally killing our health care workers, our teachers and principals, our neighbors. More than 800,000 Americans have died; our hospitals are overwhelmed, and our educational institutions are bowing to the pressure of constant political attacks from Republicans making up falsehood after falsehood in an attempt to weaken already underfunded public schools.

It’s time for leaders to lead.

For Choi, that means he either needs to follow his own advice and let the curators know he can no longer mesh his philosophy with theirs, and thus resign; or he can stand up to them, blaze a path forward that puts students and faculty first, and let the chips fall where they may.

In all of his ridiculous, over-the-top speeches on Fox News and vapid, poll-tested Tweets, Schmitt tells his voters he’s a “fighter.” Well, it’s time to give him a fight. It’s time for school boards, for Choi, for students, teachers and regular, everyday parents and Missourians to stand up to the political bullies and do what we have to do to save lives and bring about a quicker end to this pandemic.

Vaccines work. Masks work. The science produced by our state’s universities prove it.

Follow the science or get out of town.

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